Testing Badly

Pop Quiz I: what widely consumed high-calorie, high-sugar beverage, often cited as a major contributor to childhood obesity, is probably sitting around in your kid’s school vending machine, even after the announcement of last year’s “Clinton Agreement?”

If you said fruit juice, go to the head of the class.

Pop quiz II: what “good for you” beverage, another staple of childhood, is likely to cause an allergic reaction among a large percentage of its target consumers?

If you said milk, go to the head of the class and shake hands with the juice guy.

I bring up these two examples to point out the hypocrisy that can accompany any major scare in consumer products. Yes, CSD companies are victims of their own bad decisions right now, but they certainly don’t deserve all the blame for the fact that we are fast turning into Fatso Nation.

So what can the industry do to mitigate things before retailers look up and see a gaping hole in the coolers that Coke and Pepsi once dominated? Already, C-Stores are dropping their space allotment for CSD’s, and, while the fridge-pack will always be a grocery store staple, water (note the water report on page 28) remains the hot pick to eclipse soda in the next decade when it comes to sales numbers in that channel.

Well, we could all start by tossing the playbook- to-world-domination that got beverage companies into trouble with the whole school vending debacle to begin with. It was misguided. It’s a tiny part of the business, it didn’t involve killing off sponsorship deals (where the real marketing takes place) and it was a losing battle – if freaked-out social forces can try to keep Judy Blume and Harry Potter out of the school libraries, guys, you don’t have a chance. Someday, we’ll know why it was such a sticky wicket for the CSD companies to stay, but today, it’s all about rebuilding a product once regarded with the best of reputations.

And again, that’s why I bring up juice and milk – because anyone ready to bash those products for their negative qualities (juice: lots of sugar, milk: lots of lactose-intolerant African- American children) – knows that a lot of people drink them because there are positive, healthy traits associated with both of them. Both have vitamins, and both are natural (big farming’s own industrial machinery notwithstanding) and therefore avoid many layers of the processing that go into other products.

CSD’s just don’t have that advantage. In cooler- headed times, that wasn’t much of a problem. No one drank them for their health properties. They drank them because they tasted good. And retailers need to help beverage companies recognize that once again. They need them to reorient sodas as a product class that has its own strength (they can taste great!) rather than an ersatz claim to be something it’s not (healthy). Does that signal some kind of retreat? Sure. But a retreat from what? From Doug Ivester’s calculated attempts to increase Coke consumption into an ever-growing spiral, or from a mostlikely- profitable effort to spread sweetness and smiles? The latter is, in the end, a much more easily achieved business plan than the former.

But instead, many companies have gone with an offense-oriented playbook, one that has put them in a precarious place that transcends any piece of the compromise present in the school vending deal. There’s been a coinciding push to blame parents for not policing their kids more carefully; there’s been this weird attempt to reorient sodas as healthy products; there’s been a stubborn resistance to improving what were once good products (by using, say, sugar) rather than give up on a bad idea (cheap ubiquity).

And that’s unhealthy, the whole way around.