Coke and Pepsi Face Diabetes Backlash

Study shows 90% of doctors link disease with sugar

Mayor Bloomberg’s thwarted soda ban hasn’t been forgotten. Coke and Pepsi are facing a new health-related challenge as doctors increasingly link their sugary beverages to debilitating illness, according to a critical new report by Wall Street bank Credit Suisse and research from Georgetown University, made available exclusively to Adweek.

Diabetes has supplanted obesity as the biggest threat to any brand hocking sugary beverages, according to Credit Suisse's research. “We found that 90 percent of doctors in the United States, U.K. and Asia are convinced that excessive sugar consumption causes Type 2 diabetes,” said Stefano Natella, head of Global Equity Research at Credit Suisse. About 43 percent of added sugars in our diets come from sweetened beverages, per the report.

Put another way, the American Medical Association recommends that women have no more than 6 teaspoons of sugar a day; a 12-ounce can of soda contains 8-10 teaspoons.

Until now, major soda brands have insisted that  soda—at about 150 calories a can—can be part of a healthy lifestyle for people who avoid overeating and stay active. Marketing efforts, such as Coke’s recent pro-heath ad “Live Like Grandpa Did,” focus on preventing obesity.

But when it comes to brand attitudes, consumers worry more about diabetes than they do about obesity, and many hold Coke and Pepsi responsible. A study by Georgetown University conducted last week showed that after people saw a sugary soda ad with a pro-exercise, anti-obesity message, almost all of them had a positive attitude toward the products’ parent brand. But when the ad was modified to be anti-diabetes, participants’ reactions became 37 percent more negative toward the parent brand, said researcher Ishani Banerji.

“People are not willing to punish the brand for obesity, which seems like a lifestyle problem. But diabetes is considered a disease, and many consumers see the parent brand as contributing to it,” even if the brand claims otherwise, said Kurt Carlson, a Georgetown marketing professor who oversaw the study.

Not surprisingly, Coke and Pepsi are careful to skip around the D-word in their health-related marketing. Instead, they emphasize that they are ramping up their no-sugar and low-sugar offerings and encourage fitness. “We offer a diverse portfolio of beverage choices to meet a range of consumer needs,” said a Pepsi rep. Coke is helping build 100 fitness centers in U.S. schools to promote physical activity, said a Coca-Cola rep. Both companies declined to say if they will address diabetes concerns in future marketing.

As the debate over sugar and diabetes intensifies, consumption of non-diet drinks will suffer, predicts the Credit Suisse report. Coke and Pepsi will certainly shift their messages and product development, said Tom Bernthal, CEO of brand consultancy Kelton Global. 

Ty Montague, co-founder of creative consultancy co: collective, said the pressure is on the beverage giants to “create stuff people want more than the core [high-sugar] soda products.”

Indeed, Pepsi launched a cola in Australia last year that replaces a third of the sugar with stevia, a natural, no-calorie sweetener. In June, Coke introduced its own low-sugar stevia product, Coca-Cola Life, in Argentina.

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