The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food… Part 5: Soda Jerks

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By Michael Moss

This article is adapted from “Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us,” which will be published by Random House this month. Michael Moss is an investigative reporter for The Times. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 2010 for his reporting on the meat industry. Editor: Joel Lovell

‘These People Need a Lot of Things, but They Don’t Need a Coke.’

The growing attention Americans are paying to what they put into their mouths has touched off a new scramble by the processed-food companies to address health concerns. Pressed by the Obama administration and consumers, Kraft, Nestlé, Pepsi, Campbell and General Mills, among others, have begun to trim the loads of salt, sugar and fat in many products. And with consumer advocates pushing for more government intervention, Coca-Cola made headlines in January by releasing ads that promoted its bottled water and low-calorie drinks as a way to counter obesity. Predictably, the ads drew a new volley of scorn from critics who pointed to the company’s continuing drive to sell sugary Coke.

One of the other executives I spoke with at length was Jeffrey Dunn, who, in 2001, at age 44, was directing more than half of Coca-Cola’s $20 billion in annual sales as president and chief operating officer in both North and South America. In an effort to control as much market share as possible, Coke extended its aggressive marketing to especially poor or vulnerable areas of the U.S., like New Orleans – where people were drinking twice as much Coke as the national average – or Rome, Ga., where the per capita intake was nearly three Cokes a day. In Coke’s headquarters in Atlanta, the biggest consumers were referred to as “heavy users.” “The other model we use was called ‘drinks and drinkers,’ ” Dunn said. “How many drinkers do I have? And how many drinks do they drink? If you lost one of those heavy users, if somebody just decided to stop drinking Coke, how many drinkers would you have to get, at low velocity, to make up for that heavy user? The answer is a lot. It’s more efficient to get my existing users to drink more.”

One of Dunn’s lieutenants, Todd Putman, who worked at Coca-Cola from 1997 to 2001, said the goal became much larger than merely beating the rival brands; Coca-Cola strove to outsell every other thing people drank, including milk and water. The marketing division’s efforts boiled down to one question, Putman said: “How can we drive more ounces into more bodies more often?” (In response to Putman’s remarks, Coke said its goals have changed and that it now focuses on providing consumers with more low- or no-calorie products.)

In his capacity, Dunn was making frequent trips to Brazil, where the company had recently begun a push to increase consumption of Coke among the many Brazilians living in favelas. The company’s strategy was to repackage Coke into smaller, more affordable 6.7-ounce bottles, just 20 cents each. Coke was not alone in seeing Brazil as a potential boon; Nestlé began deploying battalions of women to travel poor neighborhoods, hawking American-style processed foods door to door. But Coke was Dunn’s concern, and on one trip, as he walked through one of the impoverished areas, he had an epiphany. “A voice in my head says, ‘These people need a lot of things, but they don’t need a Coke.’ I almost threw up.”

Dunn returned to Atlanta, determined to make some changes. He didn’t want to abandon the soda business, but he did want to try to steer the company into a more healthful mode, and one of the things he pushed for was to stop marketing Coke in public schools. The independent companies that bottled Coke viewed his plans as reactionary. A director of one bottler wrote a letter to Coke’s chief executive and board asking for Dunn’s head. “He said what I had done was the worst thing he had seen in 50 years in the business,” Dunn said. “Just to placate these crazy leftist school districts who were trying to keep people from having their Coke. He said I was an embarrassment to the company, and I should be fired.” In February 2004, he was.Dunn told me that talking about Coke’s business today was by no means easy and, because he continues to work in the food business, not without risk. “You really don’t want them mad at you,” he said. “And I don’t mean that, like, I’m going to end up at the bottom of the bay. But they don’t have a sense of humor when it comes to this stuff. They’re a very, very aggressive company.”

When I met with Dunn, he told me not just about his years at Coke but also about his new marketing venture. In April 2010, he met with three executives from Madison Dearborn Partners, a private-equity firm based in Chicago with a wide-ranging portfolio of investments. They recently hired Dunn to run one of their newest acquisitions – a food producer in the San Joaquin Valley. As they sat in the hotel’s meeting room, the men listened to Dunn’s marketing pitch. He talked about giving the product a personality that was bold and irreverent, conveying the idea that this was the ultimate snack food. He went into detail on how he would target a special segment of the 146 million Americans who are regular snackers – mothers, children, young professionals – people, he said, who “keep their snacking ritual fresh by trying a new food product when it catches their attention.”

He explained how he would deploy strategic storytelling in the ad campaign for this snack, using a key phrase that had been developed with much calculation: “Eat ‘Em Like Junk Food.”After 45 minutes, Dunn clicked off the last slide and thanked the men for coming. Madison’s portfolio contained the largest Burger King franchise in the world, the Ruth’s Chris Steak House chain and a processed-food maker called AdvancePierre whose lineup includes the Jamwich, a peanut-butter-and-jelly contrivance that comes frozen, crustless and embedded with four kinds of sugars.

The snack that Dunn was proposing to sell: carrots. Plain, fresh carrots. No added sugar. No creamy sauce or dips. No salt. Just baby carrots, washed, bagged, then sold into the deadly dull produce aisle.”We act like a snack, not a vegetable,” he told the investors. “We exploit the rules of junk food to fuel the baby-carrot conversation. We are pro-junk-food behavior but anti-junk-food establishment.”

The investors were thinking only about sales. They had already bought one of the two biggest farm producers of baby carrots in the country, and they’d hired Dunn to run the whole operation. Now, after his pitch, they were relieved. Dunn had figured out that using the industry’s own marketing ploys would work better than anything else. He drew from the bag of tricks that he mastered in his 20 years at Coca-Cola, where he learned one of the most critical rules in processed food: The selling of food matters as much as the food itself.Later, describing his new line of work, Dunn told me he was doing penance for his Coca-Cola years. “I’m paying my karmic debt,” he said.

By Michael Moss

This article is adapted from “Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us,” which will be published by Random House this month. Michael Moss is an investigative reporter for The Times. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 2010 for his reporting on the meat industry. Editor: Joel Lovell

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