Coke’s Sticky Situation Is a Warning Not To Market Sustainability You Don’t Have

On a wall in Honest Tea’s office is a Chinese proverb that cautions Those who say it cannot be done should not interrupt the people doing it. It’s a prescient warning given the story I’m about to tell, but the lesson I want to highlight is that when you invest in sustainability as an image rather than a mission, you’re going to be disappointed.

Honest Tea was created 12 years ago as refreshing, non-sugary alternative to soda and syrupy fruit juices and teas. The teas are all certified USDA organic, eight varieties are fair trade certified and the bottles are made from fully recyclable plastic. In 2008, Coca-Cola’s Venturing and Emergy Brands group bought a minority stake, for $43 million, in the company.  Coke’s purchase was influenced by consumer demand for healthier drinks.  The trouble started several months later when Coke noticed that the Honest Kids’ products prominently stated “no high-fructose corn syrup.”

Coke felt this reflected negatively on the majority of its products, which contained ample corn syrup, and pressured Honest Tea to change or remove the phrase. But Honest Tea co-founder Seth Goldman felt that the lack of corn syrup, as well as the tea’s organic ingredients, was central to the product. Coke’s suggestions (Honest Tea retains ultimate control over its products) went against the tea maker’s principle to provide consumers with products that are not highly processed.  The linguistic debate continues today (you can read more here).

Coke, and others like Unilver, Clorox and Danone, has acquired or bought shares in smaller sustainability brands as an entry point into the sustainable market segment. From an initital marketing perspective it makes sense. But that’s the problem. Sustainability is not marketing. And while you can market sustainability, you can’t fake sustainability that you don’t really believe in or stand for.

Coke hung a metaphorical banner proclaiming its social responsibility in front of a belching factory.  But as soon as the clouds parted and the leeching factory loomed up behind, Coke’s values and priorities were revealed, and they didn’t have much to do with honest-tea.

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  1. Megan Strand July 9, 2010 at 2:45 pm #

    Great post, Olivia.

    And this is the crux of it, isn’t it? That purple elephant standing in the living room. Coke’s products are not so healthy, certainly for kids, and the emphasis on childhood obesity is drawing attention big-time to this issue in schools and living rooms across the country. In my humble opinion, Coke is making smart business decisions by investing in more sustainable beverage options but the irony is that they’re trying to censor the very thing (minimally processed ingredients) they need to support.

    I wonder how many consumers even associate Honest Kids juice drinks with Coke, anyway? My guess? Not many.

  2. Jeff Mowatt July 10, 2010 at 8:34 am #

    For me somewhat ironic. Back in 2008 Prince Charles was writing on the IBLF site calling for new models of engagement to combat poverty, so I sent him our synopsis on inclusive capitalism. IBLF were impossible to get through to but 2 years later Coca Cola’s CEO moved over to IBLF and started to read our script back to us under the brand of Connected Capitalism

    I’ve been keeping a page about all the new capitalisms here:

    Jeff Mowatt

  3. Joe July 12, 2010 at 2:03 am #

    Coke knew who they were investing in. Coke knew what the brand meant and how Honest Tea operated. For them to mess with it is asinine. What a joke! No one thinks that Coke’s products are healthy. As if Honest Tea could make Coke look worse?

  4. admin July 12, 2010 at 9:32 am #

    Jeff: Interesting. Unfortunately, this seems to happen often in many sectors; good ideas are sometimes ahead of an easy reception. I really People-Centered. It’s a great introduction to these concepts (some of which are new to me!). Thanks for reading and for sharing the link!

    Joe: Yeah, an interesting ‘dilemma’ that Coke is facing. By tinkering with Honest Tea, they undo the very qualities that attracted them to the indie tea maker in the beginning.