What the sugar tax can tell us about Coke’s ‘Happiness Project’ and authenticity

George Osborne’s assault on the sugary drinks industry tells us a lot about how harmful these drinks are, but also teaches us a great deal about why Coca Cola’s ‘Happiness Project’ was doomed to failure from the start. It begs the question – can your brand stand for something positive, when the product is inherently harmful? 

I don’t know about you, but something always struck me as a bit of a problem with the idea of Coca Cola owning ‘Happiness’.

Their (now abandoned) position, with accompanying strap line (Open Happiness) and hugely expensive through-the-line global advertising plan was initially greeted positively by the industry back in 2009 (https://www.prophet.com/blog/aakeronbrands/89-coca-cola-struck-ceo-gold) and was given as another example of a big brand ‘doing good whilst doing good business’.

And to be fair to Coke, it inspired some genuinely brilliant activity. Such as replenishing the water used in their production processes (http://www.coca-colacompany.com/water-stewardship-replenish-report/, using their distribution network to deliver vaccines in developing countries (http://www.forbes.com/sites/skollworldforum/2013/04/08/soda-pop-and-vaccines-leveraging-consumer-supply-chains-to-promote-public-health-and-economic-uplift/#1e9e601d220b) or empowering millions of female entrepreneurs (http://www.coca-colacompany.com/stories/5by20/)

Whether consumers ever made the link between ‘happiness’ and ‘sustainability’ is another question, of course.

However, for me, the territory always felt inauthentic.

At a time when childhood obesity was rapidly become an epidemic problem in western countries, with sugar drinks and coke as the poster child for this problem, it felt shallow for Coca Cola to say they brought ‘happiness’ into people’s lives.

What it really brought was weight control issues, rotting teeth and type-2 diabetes.

Now of course, there are a number of caveats here. Coca Cola is not solely to blame for obesity. Nor indeed are sugary drinks. There are a multitude of sugary, fatty foods available which bear responsibility for this problem.

And likewise, consumers have to take care for themselves, for their families. If a child is obese then the finger points first to parents, not to soft drinks brands.

Sugar Tax

However, yesterday George Osborne announced the arrival of the long campaigned-for ‘sugar tax’ – an additional levy on soft drinks with high sugar content.

This is recognition that consumers need help making good decisions. That part of responsible capitalism is driving responsible consumption.

It is recognition that putting 9 or more spoonfuls of sugar in a can of drink, and then calling it ‘happiness’ is recklessly playing with the health and well being of your own customer base.

Coke are not the only brand to face this kind of issue. Many products have positive and negative sides – alcohol, energy drinks, red meat, etc. Many brands in this space have ambitions to be drivers of positivity in communities and in the world.

But they face a difficult challenge:

How do I become Purposeful when my product has inherently harmful qualities?

The 'Authenticity Gap'

We believe the answer lies in authenticity. It’s exactly why Coke’s Happiness Project is now seen by Coke as a ‘preachy and overly high-minded’.http://adage.com/article/cmo-strategy/coke-debuts-taste-feeling-campaign-strategic-shift/302184/ 

Your stated business Purpose needs to be something you truly care about, something your customers care about and something that the business can authentically speak into. When you fall short in any one of these areas, you create a dangerous ‘Authenticity Gap’. 

The ‘Authenticity Gap’ happens where there is a disconnect between what you say your brand stands for, and the experience a customer has when they come into contact with it.

It causes customers to switch off, ignore you or even worse, get annoyed and expose you. It hugely reduces the efficacy of advertising, the loyalty of customers and your saliency in convention-defined markets.

 So how can brands of harmful products get this right?

 Coca-Cola’s problem was that the brand claim was way too big and lofty for a soft drink and way too positive for something with so many health risks.

But Red Bull, their competitor, is an example that has overcome this brilliantly. Their Purpose is to inspire people to think and do things they never thought possible – to ‘Give wings to people and ideas’. It’s not overly worth or lofty, but it’s inspiring and the company has the right to speak into it authentically.

That’s because their product is one that gives you the energy to push yourself for longer. But also because the brand has invested in serious activations of this Purpose – extreme sports, Formula One, football. Areas which are passion points for their customers but also, evidently, for the brand.

This authenticity is what allows us to see nothing strange in a soft drink funding the world’s highest jump from space.

'Taste the Feeling'

Coca-Cola’s new positioning is ‘Taste the Feeling’ – which is about ‘Going back to Coke’s core values. We have been just talking about the brand, but talking very little about the product." according to their new CMO Marcos de Quinto.

Whether this arrests Coke’s declining growth figures remains to be seen.

Personally I think it’s a strange retreat into a product-benefit led approach at a time when all the evidence suggests product benefits are difficult for consumers to really believe, evaluate and discern.

But the very least you can say is it’s authentic.