Blog Entries by Andrew Kaplan

Coke’s Secret Weapon Is Not So Secret

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Category: General Blogs  |  Tags: soft drink

During a time when there’s been a lot of bad news for our leading soft drink company, there’s been one overwhelming positive, and that is the man at the very top: Muhtar Kent.

It appears to me that Kent came along at just the right time for Coke. His style of leadership is what this company, embattled in so many ways these days, really needs. In fact, Kent, a true man of the world, has become the face of Coke today during a time when Coca-Cola really needed a benevolent presence to counter all the criticism it is taking almost on a daily basis.

Look at Coke today and it’s almost as if there are two companies constantly being featured in the news: the one we see bashed every day for problems like the obesity epidemic, and then the one that is increasingly found on the world stage as a responsible, even admirable global citizen. Credit for much of the latter goes to Kent.

If you don’t know that much about Kent, a little background. Mark Pendergrast, in his definitive history, “For God, Country & Coca-Cola,” calls Kent: “The ultimate international Coca-Cola man,” and goes on to detail how he has worked for Coke since the age of 25. He was born in New York City, the son of a Turkish general consul, Pendergrast details, was educated in private schools in Turkey, and also lived in Thailand, India and Iran while his father was an ambassador in those countries. He speaks fluent English, Turkish, Italian and French, writes Pendergrast, who goes on to add that “at 6’1”, Kent has a commanding, tough nonthreatening presence with a friendly, gregarious demeanor.” Pendergrast also says that Kent’s father apparently served as a strong role model for the young Kent, describing him as having a “strong humanitarian bent.” In fact, during World War II he helped save Turkish Jews from the gas chambers while serving as consul general in Marseilles.

Such a humanitarian bent is quite evident when looking at Kent’s piloting of the huge multinational conglomerate that is Coke: when he is advocating for women’s empowerment around the world, or appearing at the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) Annual Meeting—as he did just as I was writing this in late September—to make a global partnership announcement with other multi-national organizations to bring safe water access, basic necessities and employment opportunities to communities around the world.

If there’s any criticism to level against Kent, it might be that the U.S. business seems neglected with all of his international focus. After all, the cola business Coke was built on is struggling to reverse consistent declines. It could be argued Kent needs to confront head-on what is ailing the U.S. soda business with the energy and verve he has confronted these other global issues.

Nevertheless, I recently asked Pendergrast what he though about Coke’s recent leaders and he responded: “I think a huge amount of credit goes to those two men. Neville Isdell turned the ship in the right direction, and Muhtar Kent is powering it full steam ahead.”

Cause and Effect

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Category: General Blogs

My parents may be getting up there in age, but that hasn’t slowed them down just yet, especially when it comes to warning their children about the latest health “study” they heard about on the news or through some email chain.

Those of you who are regular readers of this column know by now I can be quite prickly when it comes to many of these so-called “studies.” It’s come up before in this space because, unfortunately, as anyone associated with the beverage business knows, this industry take the brunt—especially lately, but this has been going on for decades—of these ominous health warnings.

There are too many of them, and they are announced too frequently to even begin to summarize here. But it does seem that the so-called “experts” have smelled blood in the water when it comes to certain segments of our industry and they have converged on it like a swarm of feeding sharks.

The parental warning I refer to above was slipped in right at the end of a recent phone call with my mom, tucked in so nonchalantly I almost missed it as I was hanging up: “Oh, and don’t forget that drinking more than four cups of coffee a day can take years off your life!”

My reply was a typical, rolling-of-the-eyes, “What in the world do you mean?” as my fingers started automatically Googling the relevant keywords into my iphone’s browser (I’ve been to this rodeo before). Eventually, I did find the study, but a little more investigating immediately showed what I expected. The study itself lacked the standards that would support one that was respectable. I happened to have dinner with a friend later that evening who had studied statistics in college, and he explained the difference between a good study and a bad one. The good find causation between two things, the bad ones just correlations. Unfortunately, many of the studies we hear about today and get tossed around so often by the mass media are based on correlations, not causations. The coffee study is a good example.

In that case, it found that those who consume more than four cups of coffee a day and are under the age of 55 have a tendency to die at a significantly younger age than those who drink fewer than four cups of coffee a day. This was sloppily bullhorned by the media as showing a real link between consumption of more than four cups of coffee by those under 55 and early death. But a little more study of this study and you start to see it unravel. There was no real causation between the coffee drinking and the early demise, just a correlation. It just happens to be that those who drank that much coffee, in that particular age group, happened to die younger. The study didn’t take into account anything else: Did they have more trouble sleeping and needed caffeine to stay awake, for example? Did they tend to have extreme Type-A personalities?

Were they dealing with heavier workloads and have more stressful lives as a result? Did they consume a delicious donut with every cup of coffee?

If we as an industry are going to fight back against these poorly conceived studies, it’s important we know how to set their authors, the media—and, yes, even our parents—straight. I tried, respectfully, and as gently as possible with the latter, at least.

Cold Glass

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Category: General Blogs

A green market recently started in the New York City neighborhood   where I live and while I’ve really enjoyed having it every Sunday, I have to say there were some products I just didn’t see myself ever buying there. One of them was dairy. Each Sunday the upstate New York based Ronnybrook Farm Dairy sets up a stall at our Market, like it does at many others across NYC. It’s a cute little stall brimming with milk, yogurts, creams, butter, etc. But having always bought all this at my supermarket I just didn’t see the reason to start getting it from the green market. After all, why change a good thing? Also, to be honest, I just didn’t trust it. Especially in the warmer weather, just how cold can they keep dairy in a farmer’s market stall all day?

But a couple of weeks ago, for no real reason other than I just had a few extra minutes to kill, I found myself again at their stall and took a closer look. And before I knew it, I had grabbed a quart of Ronnybrook’s milk in one of its old-time glass bottles, along with some yogurt, and was lugging it home. I really didn’t expect much. I figured it was worth trying, but I’d never do it again.

As the next Sunday rolled around, my bottle of milk and yogurt having run out days before, I was eagerly awaiting my next trip to the Ronnybrook stall. What had changed my mind? For those of you who regularly buy glass bottles of milk this will of course be preaching to the choir. But if you haven’t, I highly recommend it for several reasons. One, it’s damn cold, colder than any cardboard container of milk I’ve ever had. And that makes a huge difference. Second, the milk just tastes better. I don’t know if it’s the fresh, straight-from-the farm thing, or the way they process it, or the glass bottle again, but it just tastes great. And third, I don’t know if I’m old enough to remember drinking milk from a glass bottle as a kid, but the whole experience brings up some kind of nostalgia for me. Everything from twisting off the round lid, to the feel of the bottle in my hand, to noticing how the white liquid fills up less and less of the bottle every time I reach for it—it all just feels right.

And then there is the extra interaction with the Ronnybrook salesman at the stall every Sunday. Pleasantries are exchanged, and I even return the used bottle for $1.50 off my next one—how much more green can you get?

Coincidentally, the day I was writing this came news that the only bright spot in the carbonated soft drink market in the U.S. these days are sales of soda in glass bottles! That’s right—sales of soda in glass bottles rose 2.6 percent for the 52 weeks ended April 13, while plastic bottles fell 0.8 percent and aluminum cans fell 1.9 percent, according to Nielsen. Part of the reason, says The Wall St. Journal, could be that glass holds special appeal to millennials, baby-boomers and Hispanics. Lo and behold, glass is shattering its reputation as a package whose time has past. Its best days may very well lie ahead!

Re-Caffeinated

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Category: General Blogs

Last month, I discussed in this space my prediction that “energy drinks will find a way.” What I meant is that consumers have taken to this relatively new beverage category so quickly, and with such passion, that more regulation or not, it will find a way. This could mean new formulations or maybe a break-away segment of more natural energy drinks (actually, we are already seeing the latter coming on strong with several natural or organic brands now on the market).

What I didn’t take into account in that column, however, is how the success of the energy drink market is now beginning to make an impact on other non-’energy’ beverage categories. Last month’s column borrowed a phrase from the film “Jurassic Park,” so here’s another sci-fi reference: The energy drink category has become so successful in such a short time that it is like one of those black holes out there in space, everything near it is slowly being sucked right in!

Case in point is coffee. It’s obvious the reverberations of the energy drink category are spreading outwards at incredible force when a brand that can trace its roots back to 1932 suddenly slaps the word “Energy” on its label. The brand I’m referring to (as you can see in the photo) is that favorite coffee of New York City grandparents everywhere, Chock full o’ Nuts. (I can hear that heavenly jingle now: ‘A better coffee a millionaire’s money can’t buy!’) It seems a little sad in a nostalgic kind of way to see this venerable brand suddenly try to appear all young and hip. Especially since it wasn’t all that long ago, that it debuted a reduced caffeine version But hey, things were kinder and gentler back then. In this hyper-charged new millennium society, the more supercharged with caffeine the better.

Just consider these stats from the latest survey of U.S. coffee consumption habits by the National Coffee Association: 83 percent of Americans now say they drink coffee, up by 5 percent from just a year ago. Daily consumption, according to the NCA, remained “strong and steady” at 63 percent, while the figure for those who drank it at least once a week was up slightly to 75 percent.

All of this comes at a time when a cloud of potential regulation of caffeinated energy drinks—perhaps caffeine in general?—continues to hang over the industry. Last December, in response to the controversy stemming from a lawsuit against Monster energy drink, the FDA said it would possibly convene a panel of experts to investigate further the effects of various stimulants, especially on “vulnerable segments” of the population. But as of the time I am writing this in mid-April, the FDA tells me that has yet to happen.