Jon Thomas
Jon Thomas
Communications Director

Coca-Cola Falls Flat Tackling Obesity

This past weekend my beloved New England Patriots, a team in the U.S. National Football League, lost in the conference championship game, falling one game short of the Super Bowl. I was devastated and inconsolable, and even as I write this I sadly consider what could have been.

Up until what ultimately became the Patriots’ final game, their season was fantastic. They won 12 out of 16 games and earned the second seed going into the playoffs. But against a motivated Baltimore Ravens team, the wheels came off and the Patriots were handily defeated, at home no less. I wholeheartedly expected the Patriots to at least make the Super Bowl, if not win it. I never expected this. 

I had a similar surprise as I watched Coca-Cola’s two-minute spot addressing the obesity problem, which is often blamed on the soda industry and high-fructose corn syrup. If you haven’t seen it, take a look. 

Everything was going great, until it wasn’t

The first 90 seconds of the spot were fantastic. As a viewer, I learned some of the steps the nation’s leading beverage company is taking to provide us with healthier drinking options. It has more than 180 low- and no-calorie options, many of which have replaced higher-calorie offerings in school vending machines. It has created smaller, portion-controlled sizes as well as boldly stated the calorie count of each drink on its cans. It supports initiatives like the Boys & Girls Clubs that encourage kids and young adults to get active. These efforts have helped reduce the average calories per serving across the soda industry’s products in the United States by about 22 percent.

That’s a fantastic story, if it stopped there. If Coca-Cola had admitted that overconsumption of its higher-calorie beverages has led to greater numbers of obese individuals while emphasizing its efforts to offer healthier beverage options, portion control and transparency in calorie counts, I’d applaud it (though would wonder why its message warranted a 90-second spot). But it didn’t admit the truth, and the ad didn’t stop there.

At about the 90-second mark, Coca-Cola’s storytelling machine went off the rails. Instead of coming clean and admitting that it’s a source of the problem, it proclaimed that “all calories count, no matter where they come from.” The line was made intentionally vague because it implies something that is not true. While it’s true that all calories count, it’s untrue that they’re created equal, and that’s indisputable.

Telling an Authentic Story

The essence of brand storytelling is to find your brand’s story platform—the authentic story at the heart of your brand—and tell it in ways that people will enjoy and share. While Coca-Cola offers healthier options, its story platform does not revolve around health in the way that the quick-serve restaurant Subway’s does. Subway has earned the right to tell that story because it’s committed to supporting a healthier lifestyle, even though you can easily get a foot-long meatball sub with a Coke and chips at any of its restaurants.

Taco Bell, on the other hand, doesn’t support a healthier lifestyle, and to its credit, it doesn’t pretend to. Taco Bell’s story focuses on being open late, serving affordable food fast and creating unique food combinations, for example a taco that features a Doritos shell. Taco Bell doesn’t promote healthier options, because that’s not its story. It doesn’t even promote authentic Mexican fare, because that’s not its story either. A visit to Taco Bell’s website reveals promotions for its $0.99 Loaded Grillers, its Variety Taco 12 Pack and its “Live Mas” motto. Admittedly it does have a link buried a few pages deep to its support for a “balanced lifestyle,” but you’d be hard-pressed to find it or find any value in it. 

Taco Bell doesn’t pretend. It embraces its story and sticks to it.

There Is No Middle Ground in Brand Storytelling

Coca-Cola is a fantastic content marketer, and at Story we’re big fans of its commitment to storytelling. But to think that Coca-Cola was crazy enough to open this door—a door promising complete transparency—and then failed to meet the standard it was pretending to set is kind of breathtaking.

A brand must have a commitment to its story. Coke’s product line and its efforts to make the world a healthier, more active place are indeed part of its narrative, but Coke went too far. It is hard to believe that Coke will offer anything of value in the fight to rid our world of obesity. The two-minute spot concludes without a promise to take action or an answer to how we can all make a real difference (as the spot promises in its YouTube description to provide). 

Rohit Bhargava believes that tackling obesity now is a smart strategy for Coke. It’s true that there’s a lot of public pressure and that high-fructose corn syrup has a bad reputation, but if promoting a healthy lifestyle is not an authentic part of a brand’s story, I can’t agree that it is a smart strategy. At least it won’t be a fruitful one. 

What do you think? Is Coke making the right move at the right time? Is it telling the right story?

Additional reporting by Kirk Cheyfitz

  • Rohit Bhargava

    Hi Jon - great reasoned post, I enjoyed reading it. And I hated that the end of the Coke ad went to that “all calories count” line as well. But I still think we’re in a place where Coke has an opportunity unlike any other brand to tackle and bring more resources and attention to this problem … and thankfully there is enough public pressure that its an imperative. How many times do we see brands sit silently on the sidelines as their products continue to sell well and hurt people’s lives? It’s easy to shut up. What I loved about this is that the brand is going into a space that is hard. It is controversial. But on some level, the only thing that can help to change this obesity problem is a real commitment on behalf of the brand. Their Beverage Institute is one example of the commitment. The millions they spend on multiple CSR programs is another. Compared to the many brands that do so much less to help educate or inform people about health, Coke could easily take the same route. The fact that they launched this, and put real dollars behind it says to me as a marketer and consumer that not only does the brand want to make a real commitment, but that the future of the brand won’t be as heavily invested in sugary soda as it may be today. And I think that’s a good story worth building a strategy around sharing.

  • Jon Thomas

    Indeed, Rohit, that is a story worth sharing. However, that’s not the story they shared. Not in this ad at least. As I said, if they stopped at 90-seconds, this would be a nonstory. But the final 30 seconds are indefensible, in my opinion. I think they are taking fantastic steps to address the issues with their product, but I still believe they should remain out of the discussion of a healthy lifestyle and changing the world.

    I appreciate the dialogue, Rohit. We’ll both be watching to see what Coke’s next steps are, I’m sure.

  • Pingback: Story calls Coke out on the carpet « cesmithcreative

  • Brent

    I was with you until the “all calories count no matter where they come from”, hit. Not disputing that a calorie from a tomato is likely a better calorie than one that comes from refined sugar, but what did you expect? Coke, on one hand is taking some responsibility for the calorie count in most of its sugared beverages, but one does not get fat on Coke alone. And why would Coke accept the blame for what is described an obesity epidemic? On the other, you’re willing to let Taco Bell off the hook because, well, at least they aren’t pretending to peddle healthy food. But isn’t that really where the problem lies? The entire fast food industry is serving up, with each of its offerings, what could only be described as a colossus of unhealthy calories. And they do it with incredibly compelling advertising, glorious food shots and very attractive price points.
    I think you have to be grateful for small victories. Coke is reading the writing on the wall (or blog) and responding before the Tobacco Industry sized class action law suit is launched. To somehow portray Taco Bell as the more ethical of the two companies because it simply doesn’t bother to acknowledge its responsibility is disingenuous. Coke, when you consider just how uncomfortable these corporations are with the truth, has taken a big step toward accountability. Their statement about calories could have been qualified but it wasn’t a false statement. Taco Bell on the other hand is holding to the old strategy of admit nothing. Can’t possibly see how that warrants a tip of the hat while Coke gets a black eye for at least acknowledging the problem and taking steps to address it.

  • Paul Sanders

    It’s impossible to be authentic when your product’s very purpose is fundamentally at odds with the message you’re trying to convey. Coca-Cola didn’t have a chance with this initiative, and somebody on the marketing team should have learned to say no to whoever was pushing this fiasco. Substance matters, and when you try to skirt past your reader’s common sense with slick marketing (like oil company adds talking about “protecting the environment”), you merely wind up sounding condescendingly disingenuous.

  • Jon Thomas

    Totally agree Paul. Well put.

  • Jon Thomas

    First, thanks for the comment, Brent.

    I do credit Coke for taking “some” responsibility for the calorie count. In the article I commend them for their efforts, particularly the big bold calorie count on each can (which, to their detriment, has deterred me on a number of occasions). I hadn’t realized how many low- and no-calorie options they have, and I saw the portion controlled cans in the supermarket yesterday.

    I know a good deal about health and I have no delusions that Coke (and soda in general) is the root problem of obesity in the U.S. and the world. It is not. We’ve got LOTS of problems, with apathy and laziness probably being the largest. Portion control, limited healthy quick-serve options, fast food (like Taco Bell), eating contests and other societal issues contribute as well.

    To be honest, I agree with your whole comment. If I’ve got my world health glasses on, Coke should be rewarded for it’s efforts to take some accountability for the truth while those that stand by and fill our bellies with 2-lb burgers should not.

    However, in this post, I am not looking at it from a world health perspective. While I wish we would be healthier as a species, I’m a proponent of free will when it comes to dietary decisions. I want to eat Outback cheese fries when the craving hits. So in the same breath, I can’t complain that fast-food restaurants exist. So I will not be writing a post demanding that all fast-food restaurants take accountability for their actions.

    In my post I had my brand-storytelling glasses on, and Coke’s efforts came off as disingenuous. In no way do I believe that Taco Bell is more ethical. This wasn’t an article about ethics. Let me repeat—This wasn’t an article about ethics. It’s about authentic brand storytelling, and the last 30-seconds of the ad were completely inauthentic.

    As Paul said in a previous comment, “It’s impossible to be authentic when your product’s very purpose is at odds with the message you’re trying to convey.” Coke skirted around the calorie issue and made vague statements that didn’t promise any action. As a marketer, I don’t believe it was a wise choice, and the backlash is proof that I’m not the only one who thinks this way. Just take a look at the comments for the YouTube video (they’re all over the place as many YT comments are, but it’s far from a Coke lovefest).

    I give a hat tip Taco Bell only because they’ve stuck to their authentic brand story, as unethical and repulsive as you may think it is. I could have replaced Taco Bell with Red Bull, which also is not a healthy beverage. The full calorie Red Bull is damn near nuclear, but everyone loves Red Bull the brand, and we’ve commended their efforts on this blog.

    So what did I expect? I expected Coke to remain authentic throughout the ad. And if that wasn’t possible, then have no ad at all. Create shorter spots focusing on their healthier options and efforts they take to support a healthier lifestyle. They DO have a story to tell about being more than just sugar-water. This wasn’t the right way to tell it.