Soda industry takes another transparency step with Calories Count

Soft drink companies must engage and educate the public about their diversifying range of products even after they introduce calorie amounts on vending machines.

Soft drink companies must engage and educate the public about their diversifying range of products even after they introduce calorie amounts on vending machines.

Major soda companies such as Coca-Cola and PepsiCo should view the “Calories Count” vending program as only one step in a transparent relationship with increasingly health-conscious consumers and public officials, say industry leaders.

“These efforts are all great first steps,” said Rich Goldblatt, SVP and director of the Better4You practice at M Booth. “Food companies also should be reaching out to consumers and parents to help them incorporate their products responsibly into everyday diets. Currently, there is a scarcity of campaigns doing that.”

Communications experts say the soft-drink industry got ahead of regulators and health groups by adding a layer of transparency to vending machines.

Similarly, McDonald's said last September that it will require its restaurants to place calorie labels on menus ahead of regulations put into place by the Affordable Care Act.

Both moves also take into account that a savvier breed of consumer is emerging from the tough economic times of the past few years, notes Grace Leong, managing partner at Hunter Public Relations.

“They know they are dealing with a new consumer who came out of the recession with a whole new value set,” she says. “[Consumers value] honesty and companies that will be real, and by putting the calorie count at the fingertips of consumers on the vending machine, they are answering the demand by customers to talk to them straight.”

On Monday, industry group the American Beverage Association unveiled the “Calories Count Vending Program,” which will launch in Chicago and San Antonio municipal buildings next year.

The initiative will make low-calorie beverages more available in vending machines, display the words “Calories Count” on the front of machines, and place calorie labels on the selection buttons. Vending machines will also feature slogans such as “Check then Choose” and “Try a Low-Calorie Beverage.”

Susan Neely, the association's president and CEO, helped roll out the initiative by appearing on MSNBC's Morning Joe on Monday with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Tracey Halliday, VP of communications at the American Beverage Association, says the initiative is “one more way the industry is providing choice and additional information for consumers.”

The program follows a controversial move by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to ban the sale of all sugary beverages larger than 16 ounces at restaurants, food carts, fast-food joints, stadiums, and movie theaters. The regulation will go into effect next spring.

The American Beverage Association led the soda industry's response to the ban. The day after it was announced, the group published a blog post with the title “Here They Go Again: Nanny Bloomberg's Obsession with Soda.”

The group has previously worked with APCO Worldwide and other agencies as it has worked to deflect criticism from the theory that the soft-drink industry is to blame for high national obesity rates.

However, communications leaders said the “Calories Count” initiative is likely more a response to years of changing consumer demands than New York's soda ban.

“No matter what your food category, you'll always have critics, but they can't be allowed to decide what you're going to do. I think this is a reflection of the conversation that has evolved over the past few decades or so,” says Mary Christ-Erwin, leader of Porter Novelli's Food, Beverage, and Nutrition discipline.

“I think an understanding of what the consumer wants was the driver. That's why the product mix is what it is, why it's continually evolving, and why calories are front and center to help consumers be abundantly clear about what they're eating and drinking.”

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