Shifting Tastes and Fizzling Sales for Coke: Listen Up!
Social forensics and listening practice aside, Coca-Cola has recently received a clear message of souring consumer tastes as sales of Diet Coke fell for the second consecutive year on the heels of a second quarterly drop in global sales. Reflecting a trend in consumer thirst and ideas about health, overall sales of diet sodas have fallen more than sales of beverages containing sugar, with Diet Coke sales down by a ratio of 3 to 1 over sugar-sweetened Coke. Sales volumes for Diet Pepsi and Pepsi plunged over twice as much.
Last week, in deference to the consumer concerns it is tracking in social media—in particular, the safety of Aspartame and other artificial sweeteners—Coca-Cola launched an ad campaign disputing Diet Coke’s hazards to human health and defending its safety. They are certainly on the right track here. As our NetBase social intelligence monitor reveals for the past week in the word cloud below, consumers continue to associate artificial sweeteners with disease in humans. Discussions around Gulf War Syndrome reveal consumer suspicions attributing the disease to the thousands of pallets of Diet Coke distributed to soldiers during the conflict.
Suspicions linking artificial sweeteners to cancer date to the 1970s. This was the social media dark ages, well before consumers had a voice capable of impacting corporate policy. Nowadays, consumer complaints can actually alter food and beverage formularies. As more companies begin to understand the intrinsic relationship between sales and investment in social ROI, beverage companies like Coca-Cola are leveraging actionable social insights to respond to and initiate conversations with consumers.
Today’s consumer health science ultimately gets leaked or published in social media, rightfully fueling public fears. As recently as last year, for example, a study by Harvard’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital initially touting the safety of Aspartame was retracted in a press release titled “The truth isn’t sweet when it comes to artificial sweeteners.” As the Coke word cloud below reveals, when high-fructose corn syrup is filtered for other sweeteners—artificial and sugar- or cane-based—in addition to Aspartame, including Cyclamate, Bisphenol A, 4-MEI caramel, GMOs, high fructose corn syrup—as well as alcohol in soda, consumers draw a correlation to obesity and diabetes, with a leading concern revolving around children’s health.
Meanwhile, Coke has launched a new defense of Aspartame, the primary substance in its diet drinks. This comes on the heels of its proactive marketing campaigns this year to address falling sales and a market shifting away from artificial sweeteners and additives, and speaks directly to those now seriously concerned about health issues, food and beverage safety, and the harmful effects of additives and chemicals.
Our NetBase social analysis is a cautionary tale of consumers who continue to make associations among studies linking artificial sweeteners to cancer and other life-threatening diseases, including obesity and diabetes. We also see concerns about drink sizes and the life-long effects of additives and chemicals in the food chain.
Sugar and high fructose syrups in sodas, too, have been targeted by consumers and consumer health protection watchdogs like the Center for Science in the Public Interest as fueling obesity and as a leading contributor in diabetes, as we see in the NetBase theme chart below. CSPI, a leading Coke critic, is advocating that Coke spend more time and money on new research for safer low-calorie sweeteners, rather than on an ad campaign resurrecting its old Aspartame safety claims.
And just how are people responding to Coke’s new defense of Aspartame and other artificial sweeteners? In the past week since Coke went on the defensive, net sentiment has fallen compared to the prior week. This, combined with a rise in passion intensity score, reflects an emotive negative social consumer reaction. Our NetBase listening tracker also reveals heightened alarm over Aspartame consumption by parent bloggers. They cite links to cancer, muscular sclerosis and diabetes, as well as potential links to weight gain, fatigue and other maladies afflicting children in growing and disproportionate numbers.
As social media makes the science of disease increasingly transparent, companies like Coca-Cola can no longer placate consumers with self-serving ads that skirt scientific studies whose findings have already scared increasing market share away from sugary and Aspartame laden drinks. Ironically, Coke has in place a leading listening strategy. Perhaps it just isn’t “hearing” the language of its market.
Global social media analyst, research strategist and localization expert. Delivers global social media brand audits, analytics, brand innovation, media tracking. NetBase partner, leverages award-winning NLP platform Insight Composer to deliver global brand insights and analytics in 40 languages. Yogini, linguaphile, passionate about global cultural research, social brand innovation, ...
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