Monday, November 29, 2010

At 240 Calories A Bottle, Coca-Cola Gets It

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This morning I was astonished to see that Coca-Cola Classic had put the calorie count of the beverage on the bottle, very prominently. One 20 ounce serving is a full 240 calories. It’s sugar water, not health food, and by giving you the calorie count they are telling you that they know that. It’s a message that, together with the ingredient label, says, “I’m not going to try to fool you - I am an unhealthy indulgence. Buy me if you want.”

In doing this, Coca-Cola continues to show a mastery of branding that is nothing short of amazing. They are accused of peddling junk food, and there they go admitting it. Emblazoning themselves with the evidence.

I can’t think of any other brand even remotely as smart as this one. They understand their flagship brand so well that they’re not threatened by health food activists, concerned parents, or sugar-busters in the least. Their target audience is going to buy the soda regardless of the calorie count. So there isn’t any need to deceive.

Coca-Cola sells a lot of products. The brown fizzy sugar-water for which they are famous is only one of them. I’d like to see them sell organic food, which they may never do. But the bottom line is, they are on the cusp of a movement that will become standard for every brand in America and the world. And that movement will be about transparency – in terms of ingredients and operations – to the greatest extent possible. As long as they are honest about what they do, in effect giving people a choice of buying or not buying, I think they are ethical.

This is the opposite of what many people think about companies like them. Companies that are accused of promoting obesity, nutritional deficiency, labor exploitation, the objectification of people, a culture of superficiality, environmental toxins, you name it. People say that these companies are inherently “bad.”

I completely disagree.

Brands give us what we want. They give us what we pay for. Vote with your pocketbook and you will get something else. If we are getting all of the above, then we are the ones at fault.

Taking this a bit further, I disagree with the premise that emotional branding (or marketing an image in order to obtain a premium price) is inherently bad, either.

People don’t just spend money in order to survive. They also spend money to support the images they have in their heads. They spend money to create an identity. They reward themselves by buying things. And they distinguish themselves from other people through spending.

All of these activities, and more, are accomplished by buying brand names.

The fact of the matter is, people need brands. The human mind requires an outlet. Fantasy, imagination, and choices – even those that are deemed culturally unacceptable – are important to one’s health and even one’s spiritual development.

Some people are concerned about the fact that brands exploit your fantasies to make a buck. Well, that is true. But as long as you, the customer, willingly go along with that scheme, I don’t see the harm.

Coca-Cola freely admits that fantasy and memory association is the basis of its brand. That is probably how they have the confidence to admit that they’re selling sugar water in a fancy bottle and associating it with so many American cultural icons that to dislike it is almost un-patriotic. Think about it: Coca-Cola is woven through religion (Santa Claus), art (Norman Rockwell), sports (football-Mean Joe Green), and more.

Oddly, I don’t even like Coca-Cola, or any kind of soda, usually (except diet cherry, of either Pepsi or Coke, which I admit is pretty good, though it gives me sugar cravings). When I haven’t had it for awhile, it actually looks disgusting. Yesterday I had to dispose of some, actually, and as I poured it out I saw the brown liquid filling the sink bowl and grimaced. I wondered how anyone could put that garbage down their esophagus.

But a world without the choice to drink that junk would be a world much worse off indeed. Nobody wants the food police to dictate what they can and can’t eat.

Branding is just a tool, not an instrument of harm in and of itself. If you, as a brand owner, sell a good product at a fair price, treat your employees well, pay your taxes and give charity to the community in some way, that is about as spiritual as a functioning economic system can get.