Coke, Pepsi, Dr Pepper vow to push lower-calorie drinks, smaller sodas

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Increasingly under fire for making Americans fat, the nation's top three soft drink makers are promising to more aggressively push both smaller soda containers and their zero- and reduced-calorie beverages.

On Tuesday, Pepsi, Coke and Dr Pepper Snapple Group announced that they would pour more money into initiatives to "increase and sustain consumer interest in and access to smaller portion sizes, water and no- and lower-calorie beverages."

The soda makers made the splashy announcement at the annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative, at a time when they are facing hostile criticism for contributing to swelling U.S. obesity levels. The move was viewed as both a response to public scrutiny and a carefully orchestrated industry effort to regain sales that have drained away as consumers reject sugary drinks.

“This is huge,” former President Bill Clinton told the New York Times. “I’ve heard it could mean a couple of pounds of weight lost each year in some cases.”

Indeed, the soda manufacturers say they have a lofty ambition to cut the number of calories Americans consume by 20 percent over the next 10 years.

They also have another goal: make more money.

Soda losing its fizz?

The industry hopes to increase lower-calorie drink sales, chasing consumers who are turning away from sodas toward less-sugary beverages: coffees, teas, sparkling waters and energy drinks. The Wall Street Journal notes that total per capita soda consumption in the U.S. has dropped every year since 2005 (although on average, Americans are each still gulping more than 42 gallons each annually, according to the Journal's bar graph.)

Price hikes haven't done much to offset sales drops, the Journal reports. Coca-Cola and PepsiCo have had to invest in foreign markets for growth as U.S. soda sales slowly slid in recent years, USA Today noted.

For a few more numbers, here's a snapshot by Beverage Digest that describes the industry declines. The publication sums up 2013 as "challenging" for the sugary drink industry.

In response to lost sales, Coke CEO Muhtar Kent earlier this year told reporters that the company was making up to $1 billion in cost-saving cuts, much of which would be reinvested in marketing. "We know our business responds to marketing," Kent said.

Kent also added that Coke was working with "credible third parties" in an effort to shift "misperceptions" about soda, although he didn't offer specifics.

Critics: Go further

Soda critics praised the announcement Tuesday but goaded soda makers to do even more. Among them, the Center for Science in the Public Interest called on soda companies to drop opposition to higher soda taxes and to put warning labels on sugary drinks.

The beverage companies aren't going that far yet. On Tuesday, they offered a few details about what they called their "ambitious" two-pronged strategy, with both national and community initiatives. The efforts include plans to "provide calorie counts, and promote calorie awareness" on company-controlled points of sale, including more than 3 million vending machines, fountain dispensers and convenience store coolers.

The companies said they plan to more aggressively push their reduced-calorie drinks on store aisle ends and checkouts. And they aim to promote those drinks with coupons and taste tests.

The plan amounts to the single-largest voluntary effort by an industry to help fight obesity, claimed Susan K. Neely, president and CEO of the American Beverage Association.

“This initiative will help transform the beverage landscape in America," she said.

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