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Soda is a unique product; it’s not food, but it does have calories.  It’s not nutritious, but it seems more and more cans are on a “diet.”  It contains copious servings of a drug—caffeine—known to influence a wide net of neurotransmitters, and yet consumption of that drug doesn’t raise an eyebrow.  It tastes good, it quenches your thirst, improves your mood—even “opens happiness”—but it contributes to obesity.  Or does it?  

Opponents of soda are quick to draw parallels to smoking and the anti-tobacco campaigns of yore.  But there are absolute differences.  There’s no such thing as “second-hand soda,” for instance.  Few restaurants have “no soda” sections, and, as everyone knows, soda is not in the least bit addictive.  Nevertheless, it’s drawing more and more ire, as study after study links consumption to some form of obesity or another.  And with Americans becoming more obese, soda has emerged as an easy target for public policymakers.  The reasoning is obvious: because soda doesn’t provide any real nutritional content, you can cut soda calories without replacing them.  Soda is like the loose Jenga block at the bottom of the tower: it’s not supporting anything, and getting rid of it lightens the load.  But getting rid of it hasn’t been easy. 

Mayor Bloomberg made headlines last year with a proposed ban.  The ban wasn’t sweeping—in fact, it had loopholes within loopholes.  All sugary beverages were prohibited from being sold...unless they were milk-based...and only if they were sold in containers over 16 ounces...and only if these containers were at restaurants and movie-theaters.  But not 7-11s.  Or CVSs.  Or grocery stores—all of these were exempt from the ban.  Okay, the ban was less than sweeping—it bordered on arbitrary, but the message at least was clear: beverage companies were put on notice.  And boy did they notice. 

Campaigns were launched.  Petitions signed.  Signs made.  Demonstrations organized.  An organization, calling itself “New Yorkers for Beverage Choice,” built a flashy website.  Pepsi and Coca-Cola joined forces.  Delivery trucks were painted.  Lawyers hired.  It was quite the show of civic pride and corporate power.  When asked if he was intimidated by the million dollar lobbying and marketing prowess of the soda companies, Mayor Bloomberg laughed it off:

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by Brendan Steidle

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But on March 11, the day before the rules were to go into effect, a New York judge struck down the ban.  This ruined the Mayor’s planned press conference, but it has only intensified the debate.  Bloomberg vowed to appeal the ruling and he has some reason to be optimistic.  After all, the smoking ban he put into effect had failed several times dating all the way back to 1987 before it finally stuck in 2003.  Although opposed initially, the smoking ban has become increasingly popular, not only in New York City, but across the country—where state and local governments have instituted similar measures.  That ban, however, wasn’t just upheld—it was also effective.  Which raises an important question: if it’s ultimately upheld, would a ban on large cups ever be effective at encouraging healthy behavior?  

First, it’s important to understand that the people purchasing large sodas in New York or any other major city aren’t trying to be unhealthy.  They’re just thirsty.  Moreover, these aren’t bad choices that are being made by consumers—choices that might be changed with education.  In fact, they’re quite the opposite.  Consumers who buy big sodas are making very intelligent decisions.  

You need only imagine New York City in the late summer to understand why.  The sun is out, the air is clear but the sky is hazy.  It’s hot, and the streets are crowded and the subway stations are cooking.  No matter where you go, you’re going to walk three or four blocks to get there and when you do, you’re probably going to be hungry and you’re definitely going to be thirsty.  So you step into one of these venues to grab a quick bite.  And the question arrives: what do you want to drink?  

Taste is an afterthought.  You’re thirsty.  And here are your options:  

Mayor Michael Bloomberg  (official photo)

Mayor Michael Bloomberg (official photo)

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A few considerations come into play:  

  1. Choose the cup that best matches your level of thirst 
  2. Choose a beverage that isn’t too expensive 
  3. If it is expensive, get your money’s worth  

These are not unreasonable criteria.  But there’s an immediate problem:  

The cup that best matches your level of thirst is a large or extra large.  The beverage that is the cheapest is water, which is free.  But water doesn’t come in a large.  Water comes in a cup that is so small, it’s one level under small.  If you get a small water, you will need to refill it many times.  This will disrupt your meal.  

Another option:

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Bottled water is larger than the water cup, but would you be getting your money’s worth?  How could you enjoy your meal drinking water you paid $3 for when you could have gotten water for free?  Moreover, bottled water’s number one feature—its portability—is unnecessary for dining in.  As Harvard’s Clayton Christensen might say, a bottle is “over-serving” for this job to be done.  So you rule out the bottled water.  That leaves the large soda—or the extra-large soda if you want to be safe—as the most rational choice.  It is, in this matrix of factors, for this moment, the best decision.

So, let’s return to the cup ban.  Mayor Bloomberg is right: there is a problem with the size of cups.  But it’s not that soda cups are too big; it’s that water cups are too small.  As a result, water cups do not correlate with a customer’s level of thirst.  High-sodium foods only exacerbate the problem.  The bottom line is that there is a real water shortage in America.  The choices people have are completely uneven: saying that you could just drink water in a fast-food restaurant is like saying the alternative to a Big Mac is having a cup of apple-sauce.  Eliminating the highest-tiered container of one product is not going to improve the desirability of a healthier product.  

So what could Mayor Bloomberg have done instead?  Rather than ban large cups of soda, he should have bought some cups of his own—big cups, the same size or even bigger—and distributed them across New York City’s restaurant chains, offering them free of charge and requiring restaurants to serve water in these cups.  Then, he should have partnered with a big marketing firm to rebrand “water”—city water—as a viable alternative to soda.  

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Photo by Jess Rand, 1960

To help water compete with soda, the city should think like a product manager.  Why else do people drink sugary beverages?  Because they taste good.  How does city water taste?  How can we make it taste better?  What does better mean?  For some, it means removing the taste of processing.  For others it means adding more taste.  One reason for soda’s popularity is anthropological: it reaches back to our natural thirst for sweet fruits.  So why not give someone who buys a cup of water a plate of strawberries to enjoy it with? 

Water with lemon is a classic example—but why stop at the lemon?  Create a whole line of fruit-water offerings and sell them at the same price or less than soft drinks.  Orange.  Pear.  Even cucumber.  All natural.  Locally source it from area farms and even subsidize the price for restaurants if you like—so the profit margin is near that of soda.  Maybe also install CO2 cartridges to make sparkling water available so it tastes even fresher and feels like a premium product.  In fact, a bottled version of this spa-water idea has already hit the market in the form of Hint water.   

Beating soda with water won’t be easy because no innovation is easy.  It takes time and patience and ingenuity to change people’s behavior, but telling them that the choices they make are wrong or stupid misses the mark.  Taking something away is the special privilege of the government; one that companies do not have.  Instead, companies must give you something more, something better.  They must innovate—out-innovate their competitors.  Until health advocates begin to innovate, they’re always going to lose to the competition.