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What if Coca-Cola employed the gradual-change approach to reduce the calorie content of their beverages to zero?  Here’s a year-by-year breakdown to make it happen in line with the company's 2020 vision, using the Coca-Cola brand as an example.  The same timeline can be rolled out across all brands, from Sprite to Fanta: 

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by Brendan Steidle

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Year One

Development:

Double or triple Coca-Cola’s R&D on artificial sweeteners.  Send teams across the globe to search for cutting edge developments in research and academic labs and pay what it takes to follow up on these leads.  Conduct an internal review of all past sweetener development projects, especially those that were canceled or defunded over the last three decades.  See where the trail went cold and reapply lessons-learned.  At the end of year one, have an end-product that achieves between 95 and 99 percent taste fidelity with the current brand.  This product should also be designed to easily blend in different ratios with the current brand.  

Labeling: 

Also in this year, research should be instituted in the areas of product labeling.  Since this will be a slow transition with many iterations of the product, labeling may present challenges.  Find innovative ways to label products that would make the company’s slow transition easier to manage without having to re-print nutrition facts so frequently.  Perhaps the company could spend money lobbying Congress or the FDA for more flexibility in beverage calorie labels so that it could slowly reduce its calorie count on the actual product while maintaining a higher and older calorie count on the label.  This could be done as an effort to provide greater transparency to the consumer, perhaps in the form of advocating for higher calorie counts to be printed on soda labels so that the consumer sees the “upper threshold” of calorie count expectations.  If this is successful, the company will be able to make its transition without raising as much immediate taste-related suspicion from consumers.  

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Year Two

The Blend Schedule:

Develop a detailed release schedule that includes the progression of 60 unique soda blends—one new blend of Coca-Cola each month for five years.  The plan: a slow, imperceptible slide towards a zero calorie replacement.  This way, the Coke you drink in March has two fewer calories than the Coke you drank in February, which had two fewer calories per serving than the one you drank in January. 

Blending the soda slowly will present challenges in both manufacturing and distribution, and it may require a change or modification of current best-practices.  This should also be worked out in Year Two, which should be dedicated to working out these challenges.  For example, changing the blend every month may not be ideal: every quarter may be more realistic within the existing supply chain, especially considering the need to coordinate the timing of both bottling and fountain operations.  

If New Labeling Rules Failed:

At the beginning of Year Two, introduce new language in the ingredients of the currently-sold product.  This language should indicate that current branded products may contain trace amounts of the sweetener X.  This new sweetener X will not appear in the soda at all this year, but the added statement will be noticed by the press and the company should make a statement indicating that it is merely on there for transparency reasons to indicate that the beverage is being manufactured on the same equipment.  Just like the “trace amounts of peanuts” statement on other products.  

Sweetener Sentiments:

In Year Two, the company’s marketing department should also conduct research on current sentiments regarding artificial sweeteners.  Some may be opposed to it.  Find out why and begin a slow campaign to educate and reverse this negative perception.  This will be important to lay the groundwork for the transition, but do not indicate the end-goal.  

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Year Three

Secret Start:

Begin shipping the first of 60 different blends.  Do not release any news or make any statements.  Within the first month or so, some will notice the slight changes in calorie count.  Additionally, the new sweetener will now be listed as an ingredient, rather than a “trace amount” statement (unless it still qualifies as a “trace amount”).  At this time, the company should make a statement to the press, but it should still keep its overall plan a secret:  

 

“The changes to the nutrition label demonstrates our effort to cut a few extra calories from our beverages, which coincides with a number of improvements in our manufacturing and distribution methods. 

We’re happy to report that consumers can expect to see a few more slight reductions in calories through the end of the year as we continue to improve our manufacturing, but these reductions will be minimal and the changes incremental, about two or three calories fewer every month, adding up to just about a 20 or so calorie reduction per can versus December last year. 

Total calories saved will roughly be equal to eating about two saltine crackers.  Nothing to write home about, but also nothing that consumers should worry about regarding taste.  Coca-Cola remains committed to serving the best-tasting products on the planet.  Our customers should not expect to detect any change in taste; if anything, our improved distribution should make the product fresher than ever.”

 

Preparing the Debut:

In the fall of this year, the company should begin to develop its short-term marketing plan for unveiling the truth about its campaign.  Throughout this process, the campaign’s message and goals should be told to only a few employees so that the moment is not ruined by being leaked.  

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Year Four

The Announcement:

Through the spring, the company should continue shipping the slowly morphing product alongside the slowly changing product label.  Eventually, the press will notice that the calorie count is continuing to drop.  Press requests for statements from the company will be numerous.  The CEO should prepare a major speech, address, or press-tour for the announcement.  This should also be packaged as a series of videos developed for each brand, aimed at the brand’s targeted demographic.  An excerpt from the CEO’s speech:

 

“Coca-Cola has always been committed to the health and well-being of our customers.  For decades, we have sponsored exercise and education programs, and over the course of the last twenty-five years, we have increased our healthy beverage options tenfold.  But it wasn’t enough.  Health trends today are discouraging and we decided that we could play a part.  But we had to be bold.  This is an 8-year effort building on 30 years of research and we’re now in our fourth year of the plan—yes, we’re halfway there.  Halfway where, you ask?  Halfway to reducing our company’s obesity footprint to exactly ZERO.  

Our plan calls for a five year, phased reduction in the calorie count of our major beverage brands.  Two to three calories every month, over the course of 60 months.  We are now about 15 months into this process.  If you’ve had a Coke in the last year and a half you probably didn’t notice the difference.  And that’s the point.  We’re doing this in a way that you can’t notice the difference.  Even if, like me, you’ve known all along. 

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It was vitally important that in our first year of transition we monitored your reactions to the change—just to make sure we were on the right track.  If you didn’t react well, if people, for some strange reason, noticed the taste and started unconsciously buying from our competitors instead, we would have hit the brakes and regrouped.  But nobody has noticed.  And as we continue to change, nobody will notice the taste.  But it’s time to notice the trend: our world faces incredible challenges in the area of obesity and overall health.  And it’s time for responsible citizens like Coca-Cola to act.  It’s time to be bold.  

The health of our business depends on the health of our customers.  This statement appeared in our sustainability report nearly 10 years ago and it’s become our personal mantra for the last four years.  I hope that other businesses adopt it, too.  Because in this world we must all be committed to our customer, not just at the moment before they buy our product, but more importantly, to enrich and extend the moments after.  

Now, we could change everything tomorrow if we wanted to; but if we did we’d lose customers to our competitors, who still have full-calorie offerings.  And then no good would be done for anybody; not us here at Coca-Cola, and certainly not you our customer.  For those of you who want bolder action, you can change tomorrow: we already have two zero-calorie alternatives to our flagship Coca-Cola beverage: Diet Coke and Coke Zero.  But for us and many of our customers out there, the real change is going to take a bit more time.  

“As we executed on this project, I kept having this nagging feeling that in some way, even though we were trying to do good by our customers, we were somehow leaving you with something less—a lesser product, a lesser experience.  All of our great scientists told me otherwise, and my tastebuds told me that too, but I couldn’t get past it.  So I decided that concurrently, alongside this major change, as we reduced the calorie count, we owed it to you, our customers, to give you something more.  More, even, than anyone might ever come to expect from a beverage company.  That’s why today I’m excited to announce a new program called simply Gym Coca-Cola...”

 

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