Beverage Companies Blur Line Between Philanthropy & Marketing

Some soda companies have begun using cause marketing to curry public favor in the face of criticism. (La Piazza Pizzeria/Flickr)

If you were watching the Superbowl in 2010 when the Packers beat the Steelers, you may have noticed that Pepsi commercials were absent from the ads that were vying for the attention of millions of viewers. Instead, Pepsi announced Pepsi Refresh, a project to take the $20 million dollars it would have spent on Superbowl advertising and give it to a good cause. They used a vast social media campaign to involve the public in voting for which cause would get the money.

Pepsi’s good deed did put $20 million dollars into the hands of organizations working to solve global problems, but Pepsi got something back too — loyal consumers. The campaign was a splashy example of a new strategy called “cause marketing” that plays off a growing trend of corporate social responsibility. But this money comes directly out of Pepsi’s brand marketing budget, not their philanthropy arm.

“There are some really revealing statements in the industry literature from executives at Pepsi saying very explicitly what they were trying to do,” explained Lori Dorfman, Director of the Berkeley Media Studies Group. “And one of the things they were trying to do is get the attention of and favorability of millennials,” she added.

Dorfman and her colleagues have been digging into the nitty-gritty of the beverage industry to draw comparisons between the marketing strategies of big tobacco and those of soda companies, who have recently come under attack for the role their sugary product is playing in rising obesity rates.

The article that Berkeley Media Studies Group published in PLoS Medicine is part of a broader series launched by the international public health journal to look at the immense cultural and political power of “big food.” They use the term “big food” to talk about multinational food and beverage companies and to draw the analogy to big tobacco.

“Food, unlike tobacco and drugs, is necessary to live and is central to health and disease,” wrote the journal’s editors in preface to the series. “And yet the big multinational food companies control what people everywhere eat, resulting in a stark and sick irony: one billion people on the planet are hungry while two billion are obese or overweight.”

“They are explicitly going after kids and trying to sell product with corporate social responsibility campaigns.”

Tobacco companies have been under attack since the 1960s for selling an unhealthy product. Now, food and beverage companies are using tricks tobacco learned, like corporate social responsibility — but they’ve added their own twist. “What we know about what’s different about soda companies is that they are explicitly going after kids and trying to sell product with corporate social responsibility campaigns, something that I think they’re breaking new ground in that regard,” said Dorfman.

The campaign is simple: people — especially young people aged 11-31 — like companies that do good in the world, so “cause marketing” engenders loyal customers at the emotional level. Buying Pepsi also gets a consumer more votes for her cause of choice.

But that’s not all. The strategy is designed to thwart damaging policies as well. “For the tobacco companies it’s not just the public and policymakers that they’re concerned about, it’s future juries that they are concerned about,” Dorfman explained. “And with soda companies, I would guess that they are concerned about future voters because people are starting to get concerned about this.”

Indeed, Richmond, a few miles north of San Francisco, is poised to become the first city to tax soda as an anti-obesity strategy, if voters approve the measure in November. Big efforts are being made in New York to limit access to sugary drinks, and everywhere people are talking about rising obesity rates and the attenuating health risks and costs. In many ways the outrage over what soda companies sell, does mirror concerns about tobacco.

There’s one big difference, though — the tobacco industry is forbidden from marketing directly to youth. Not so with soda companies. And, Dorfman points out a glaring hole in the corporate social responsibility model. “If their number one responsibility is to their shareholders, that makes their pledges about health secondary, at minimum,” she said.

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  • Anonymous

    Good marketing strategy…

    James Andrey
    Culture Kefir