Thursday, March 21, 2013

What Big Religion Can Teach Big Soda and Mayor Mike: A Big Lesson in Perceptions For Us All

Historians probably won’t pair Big Religion and Big Soda together, but that’s the beauty of blogs – they offer a snapshot of the moment and not a broad brush of time itself.

March – the month of lions and lambs – opened with the Vatican’s election of a new pope and began its wrap-up with an 11th-hour court ban on New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s controversial attempt to forbid the sale of sugary beverages over 16 oz. the day before its enforcement. While many applauded Bloomberg’s public health efforts, Manhattan state Supreme Court Justice Milton Tingling, said the proposed ban “has the potential to be more troubling than sweetened beverages.”

Call it the age-old “cure is worse than the disease” conundrum.

“Age-old” is something with which the 2,000-year-old Catholic Church is well-acquainted. Yet by many accounts, Pope Francis, 76, has been positively described as delivering a youthful dose of humility, authenticity, genuineness and credibility – qualities the Church desperately needs. Pope Francis leads a flock of some 1.2 billion Catholics. Meanwhile Coca-Cola sells 1.7 billion servings per day. I wonder how many of those consumers are Catholic?

Big Soda’s lesson is clear and it’s one Mayor Bloomberg has rightly been trying to impress. Hurting consumers’ health by incentivizing dangerous portions isn’t good business (It’s also immoral). Large drink makers should adopt voluntary changes – just as the church elected a somewhat progressive pope. Catholic disenfranchisement isn’t good for the business of religion either and the cardinals electing Pope Francis had the wisdom to know that.

Mayor Mike could use a measure of humility too. Pope Francis might be the Vicar of Christ on Earth, but that didn’t stop him from asking people to pray for his – and the world’s – continued success. Bloomberg views his attempted beverage size ban as a health issue. Detractors, however, including the state supreme court, have questioned his methods. Ronald John Warfield, a civil and criminal lawyer who’s tangled with Bloomberg over policies in the past praised the Mayor’s intentions, but said the administration acted with “an imperial hand.”

The Church has also acted with its own imperial hand over time, squelching dissent, covering up priestly sexual abuse and opposing gay rights. It also took 359 years to finally admit (in 1992) that Galileo was correct in saying the Earth revolves around the sun. But if this ancient an institution can be led by a pope considered genuine, authentic and humble and who embodies the possibility of internal change propelling external change,, then soda companies and mayors can learn those lessons too.

So, what are your perceptions of the new pope? Do you believe soda companies will better police their own policies, resulting in improved public relations? And can Mayor Mike step away from the mic long enough to swallow his pride? Let me know in your comments below.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Some Branding Advice and a Recipe to Discover Twinkies’ Twinkle

The Korean Peninsula could erupt in war at any minute, the first non-European pope, Jorge Bergoglio, has just been elected and sequestration’s full effects are only just beginning to be felt (I spent almost 2 hours at Miami airport on Friday night, waiting to clear immigration. Why? Personnel cutbacks due to the sequestration. Get ready for a lot more of that).

Yes, there’s clearly a lot on our collective plates. But is there room for dessert, or specifically, Twinkies?

Fittingly, the hard-to-digest, terrible-for-you artificial snack has lived to fight another day, a counterweight to the battle for healthier food choices and the ongoing obesity epidemic. Last week, it was announced that the Twinkie, once owned by the Hostess brand, had been resurrected – purchased in a $410 million bid by private equity firms Apollo Global Management and Metropoulos & Co. – following its parent company’s 2012 bankruptcy.

Twinkle, Twinkle Twinkie Bar

For diehard Twinkie fans, the people hoarding what were supposed to be the brand’s final shipments back in November, all that matters now is that the spongy goodness will likely return to supermarkets by summer. Marketers and PR execs, however, aren’t so flush with sugary bliss. Tasked with aiding Twinkie’s re-branding, the path forward is far from all vanilla cream and cake.

The truth is, Twinkies face a serious uphill battle and their fall from culinary grace has been building for years. Unwieldy bakery unions were only part of the problem. But nor is it fair to argue, as Hostess has, that its 2% sales drop in 2011 was due solely to changing American food habits toward healthier options. If that were the case, obesity, specifically childhood obesity wouldn’t be the crisis it is (32% of American children are overweight or obese) nor would nearly a third of children’s caloric intake, 27%, come from unhealthy snacks.

Larry Popelka, writing for Businessweek, is correct when he says Twinkies suffer from an innovation problem as much as from a perception of unhealthiness.

But I’m not here to argue the health quality of Twinkies . The American consumer has grown far too savvy for that. We know that when something contains partially hydrogenated vegetable oil or “trans fats,” it’s not good for you. Similarly, we know that euphemisms such as “enriched” or “natural flavors” aren’t what they appear to be either. As with Taco Bell’s “Fourth Meal” and “Live Mas” commercials, the Twinkies brand needs to better embrace its guilty pleasure indulgence, making fun of its nutritional shortcomings but remaining respectful of its 83-year Depression-era heritage. Until recently, Twinkies were a generational food – the Greatest Generation served Twinkies and Wonder bread to Baby Boomer children (not on the same sandwich) and Boomers offered them to their Gen-X and Millennial offspring.

At the same time, Twinkies should be offering more diverse products, marketed heavily through social media. I’m reminded of Nabisco’s creation of 100-calorie bite size packs. Packaged portion control is an excellent way to silence critics. Perhaps Twinkies should consider smaller sized, lower calorie versions? Don’t laugh, but Twinkies’ long and slender shape might also work to their advantage too if they build marketing campaigns and children-friendly loyalty programs that encourage burning calories and not just consuming them.

Besides, the 150 calories contained in one Twinkie are no worse than those in other unhealthy snacks. But if every calorie burned equaled 5 cents toward initiatives that helped combat obesity, maybe the Twinkie could rediscover its twinkle.

The Vaguest Healthy Food Recommendation of Them All

And how can you forget the basic marketing message when dealing with any questionable product like this: most items consumed in careful moderation are OK.

So, will Twinkies’ new lease on life be permanent or is its brand too damaged for repair? I’d love to hear your thoughts below and what else the Twinkies brand should do in the run-up to its summer re-launch.

And please, don’t sugarcoat your responses. There’s always room for dessert – and second opinions.