Aug 112015

Questionable honesty, poor organisation and planning, lack of transparency, a non-identity, lack of gravity and failure to grasp the scientific context have set the Coca Cola Company at odds with stakeholders it should be engaging. Poor planning and a confused understanding of current scientific belief has undermined the company’s attempts to legitimately engage in the world of wellness.

Coca Cola is attracting criticism for its ‘hands-off’ support of a new initiative the Global Energy Balance Network. Zero points for the name for a start. It sounds like something you’d be doing with your chakras under a mystical new age pyramid hat. But then Coke can’t be to blame for that in its hands-off role, can it? Can it..? What’s gone/going wrong here? Why has Coca Cola blundered into the minefield described here in the New York Times?

Probably, precisely because wellness is not its core business. In ethical healthcare where separation of education and promotion is well policed, this situation would not have arisen, certainly not in the developed markets. However, given the increasing desire of consumer brands to play in the unregulated wellness zone, the opportunities for miss-steps such as these are rife.

The first mistake Coca Cola appears to have made is in not realising that ‘hands-off’ means exactly that. That the company did not just gift or grant a contribution to setting up the GEBN, and in fact was materially involved in its registration gives critics ammunition to question Coke’s honesty

The group’s president, James O. Hill, a professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, said Coke had registered the website because the network’s members did not know how.

This is scarcely believable. That a body in receipt of a bucketful of start-up funding can’t hire an IT guy to do a task that takes about 15 minutes to understand and complete points to it being hopelessly under-resourced, badly planned and/or – more pertinently – not really serious about its declared aims.

Second, although the GEBN does now declare The Coca Cola Company’s ‘gift’ in the about us area, it seems there was a bit of an oversight initially… 

The group’s website also omitted mention of Coke’s backing until Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, an obesity expert at the University of Ottawa, wrote to the organization to inquire about its funding. Dr. Blair said this was an oversight that had been quickly corrected. “As soon as we discovered that we didn’t have not only Coca-Cola but other funding sources on the website, we put it on there,” Dr. Blair said. “Does that make us totally corrupt in everything we do?” 

Not necessarily, Dr Blair but it shows terrible project management, sounds a little murky and again points to poor organisation and planning (and your response could have been a little less defensive). But the real issue here is transparency, or lack of. And reference to ‘private philanthopists’ is not going to go unnoticed by critics, cranks and conspiracists in their attacks on the corporate machine.

Third, the name is terrible. The overall identity is poor. The website is minimalist – and not in a useful way, eg enabling accessibility – but in a done-quickly, done at home, WordPress kind of way. It doesn’t give the impression that this organisation is really serious or substantive. It looks token. In short it lacks gravity.

Fourth – and this is the crux – critically Coca Cola and/or the GEBN and/or the PR agency seem not to have properly appraised the volume of noise around the issues of sugar, weight, diet, obesity and diabetes, and have jumped in feet first seemingly looking to start a conversation, when in fact the conversation is already raging. They have overlooked the science and current context.

This paper alone would have given GEBN pause for thought. It reports  systematic reviews that reported financial conflicts of interest or sponsorship from food or drink companies were more likely to reach a conclusion of no positive association between sugar-sweetened beverage consumption and weight gain than reviews that reported having no conflicts of interest. Implication: ‘hands-off ‘should have absolutely meant hands-off. Because of start-up carelessness, the GEBN is irredeemably tainted.

This website, though unattributed (learnings for GEBN there), is obviously a vehicle for the UK’s sugar industry. A quick examination of this site by a competent healthcare communications agency with the aim of gaining contextual understanding for the desired positioning of GEBN, would have identified a whole host of worst practices not to be replicated, not least its completely unreferenced position statements.

A quick Google would have turned up the website for the Action On Sugar group. There is no need even to go beyond the home page to get a sense its veracity. It hits the reader with a faculty of over 20 obviously well connected academic faculty. This kind of immediate gravitas should have given the GEBN pause for thought before diving right on in with its very much more limited faculty.

A quick search to gain a perspective on how the issue of weight loss and exercise are communicated in the mainstream consumer context would have turned up plenty of content, eg here and here. Opinion clearly goes against the grain of the position the GEBN is purporting to hold. A quick summary of the kind of consumer guidance put out by the likes of the Harvard School of Public Health would have given a hint of the way the issues facing its industry are framed.

What to do?

It looks like Coke has set off on an unsustainable path with GEBN. For the reasons covered above the initiative looks flawed and doomed to failure. It looks to be very far from being a source of independent education, instead being a quite poorly disguised defensive promotional medium designed to build an alternative support for its product positioning. So far its social media outreach has certainly underwhelmed and failed to engage. The Coca Cola Company is not unused to reputational challenge and clearly invests heavily in an admirable CSR program, but this half-step into the world of health and wellness looks ill-advised, badly planned and poorly executed, flies in the face of mainstream medical opinion and would probably benefit from being aborted.


Earned media is just that. Ethical pharma knows this, when consumer players extend into health and wellness they have to understand there is no crossover with paid and owned. An unrestricted grant is quite literally what it says.

Honesty is inherent to earned media. Coca Cola’s hand in registering the GEBN may well have been carelessness but it raised doubts about degree of involvement, damaging the new body’s legitimacy.

Another mistake was the failure to declare Coca Cola’s link. Again, possibly carelessness, but a lack of transparency hands the legitimacy to your opponents asking the questions.

The identity of GEBN is weak, both in terms of appearance and in how the depth of the faculty compares to other bodies exercising a voice in the same space. It lacks gravitas and gravity.

The science and contextual understanding are absent. This points to both a failure to understand that the wellness space is inherently linked to the mainstream health care arena. A specialist health care communications agency would have built a foundation of the science and in this case recommended a far more carefully nuanced strategy.