Dishonest Branding, Coke and Vitaminwater

 

I’ve spoken before about what makes a good brand and how branding can either be honest or dishonest.

A few weeks ago a lawsuit came to light that is a perfect example of how even well-developed brands that are dishonest can lead to undesirable results.

Coca-Cola was sued by a non-profit group challenging the truthfulness of the branding of their vitaminwater product. It seems vitaminwater is actually just as bad for you as any soda, and the supposed health-benefits are fiction. Pure dishonest branding.

This is interesting for a few reasons.

First, it’s a great example of a dishonest brand that also happens to be well done. The vitaminwater brand is well-designed, well-marketed and well-placed: you’ll find it alongside all kinds of health-oriented drinks in organic-crazed shops like Whole Foods and in the ‘granola’ sections of mainstream supermarkets.

Second, it shows that impostors hiding behind even very well-built brands can’t hide their true colors forever. Who’s to say what will happen as a result of this lawsuit, but you can be sure that if it goes well, there will be a slew of other products in the crosshairs soon, not to mention much stricter regulations as to what passes muster when it comes to being defined as ‘healthy.’

Third, I think most of us fell for it, and I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty pissed. I feel betrayed, like Coke made a fool of me. They only added insult to injury with their official response to the lawsuit, explaining why they shouldn’t be sued:

“No consumer could reasonably be misled into thinking vitaminwater was a healthy beverage.”

Wha-WHAT?

Coke, that hurts. Not only have you pulled the wool over my eyes, but now you’ve called me unreasonable for thinking that a product whose name is a combination of ‘vitamin’ and ‘water,’ which uses slogans like ‘vitamins + water = all you need’ isn’t bad for you.

My fault for trusting your word, I guess.

Coke will bounce back from this, of course. They’re a multi-billion dollar company and can take more than a few legal knocks before feeling the burn.

But would you be able to?

A good brand creates a hierarchy of important – and TRUE – information about you, your product or your service. This tells people what’s most important without lying, which is a great way to raise awareness and improve your image while avoiding lawsuits.

Keep this in mind: if you have to lie in order to compete, you’re probably in the wrong industry anyway.

50 comments

  1. Quite glad to have distanced myself from this silly industry of ‘advertising.’ It’s inherently aspires to and is entirely driven by short-term thinking.

  2. I like your article, but I think Coke has a point. I have not bought anything they produce, package, or bottle for years (at least not that I am aware of). I am even wary of their Dasani Water they bottle and don’t by it. When a company does not care about anything else besides profits, I try to choose another company.

  3. There are positive ways to use it, for sure, but unfortunately many companies don’t take that route, opting instead for the lowest common denominator and bottom-line focused thinking.

  4. But there’s the question: should the public have to keep up with who owns what, and then also have a full education on what each corporation has been up to with their other brands and non-brand activity (like Coke’s buying up water in Africa and selling it back to the population)?

    Hell, they don’t even have their brand on most of what they produce (vitaminwater bears the label ‘glaceau,’ a company that was bought by Coke back in 2007), so who can keep up?

    We live in a world of specialists, and 99% of people will never even think to look up the background of every product they purchase. If the advertising makes claims that can’t be backed, however, something needs to be done, lest we fall back into the time of more prevalent pseudo-science for sale and snake oil that will cure all diseases.

  5. Good points Colin! I said that Coke has a point in tongue-in-cheek :)! Of course, I think they have responsibility. Having said that, I do advocate consumers taking full responsibility for their choices in finding out what they are buying and from whom they are buying it from.

  6. Ah! Got it :)

    I agree that consumers should take responsibility for knowing what they are buying, but at the same time, as things are now, consumers are actually incredibly ignorant as a whole (though they think they are knowledgeable, which is even worse), and this creates a situation wherein companies that play by the rules and creating good products are losing out to those who don’t and make terrible products. This is survival of the fittest, but with skill at lying being the standard of what lives and dies, and it should be more of a meritocracy, in my mind.

  7. I agree with you that as a whole consumers are very ignorant. And I also completely agree that it would be much better if companies would not lie and instead would participate in honest marketing and advertising practices. ;)

  8. great points, Colin. I was duped by the vitamin water advertising too. But I appreciate your bigger picture message: unless you are Coke, you can’t get away with it. Don’t misrepresent yourself or your brand. Eventually people will see through it. The only thing I don’t get is the picture. Am I missing something?

  9. I agree…I feel like an idiot. And here I was, buying something several times a week that I thought was not only better for me than Coke, but better than water!

    We should seek punitive damages :)

  10. It’s a minefield out there… Of course we’re all responsible as consumers, but these companies spend so much time and money on deliberately duping us.

    It’s hard, ya know… I was investigating some high street ‘organic’ labels this week – the result? Scary stuff. Hardly a peep of organic, and a whole heap of pretty nasty chemicals…

    Marketing wins out time and time again :(

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  12. Good Post.

    I think untrue advertising is like sponsored google links.

    The more educated/aware people are, the less they click on sponsored links. The same is true for fake branding. The more aware/educated people are, the more sceptical they are for products which are launched with huge impressive marketing campaigns.

  13. I actually like Vitamin Water & I’m honestly tired of the sue-happy culture we have, but for Coke to think that nobody could interpret Vitamin Water to be actually healthy for you is a little ridiculous.

    • Yeah, I’m not a big fan of suing as the answer to every problem, but unfortunately it’s the only way to get attention in some cases. Definitely not an ideal solution.

    • Really? I’ve always prefered a good old Blue Moon. To each his own I guess ;-)

  14. Great comparison! Being more aware definitely helps. I think if everyone were educated on basic marketing techniques, we’d have a lot less to worry about, but unfortunately most people are blissfully ignorant on the subject, so even simple tricks work wonders.

  15. It’s really a shame – I was doing the same (though not quite as frequently).

    Now I need to find something that really IS healthy for when water isn’t enough!

  16. Right? The organic label is a perfect example, since it’s so prevalent right now. Now I’m seeing ‘natural caffeine’ and ‘sea salt’ replacing their less-specific kin, as well, and all we can do is shake our heads and think ‘well, it does SOUND better for you, doesn’t it?’

  17. Thanks Jeremy. And thanks for taking note of the larger point!

    The picture is kind of random…I didn’t have a snapshot of vitaminwater handy (and I try to only use my own photos and illustrations on this site), so I put up one that I had available of some friends acting fake.

    It’s a stretch, I know, but I guess that’s the topic of this post anyway!

  18. I try to keep away from any food or drink that has a really long ingredient list. No matter what company, if I can’t pronounce an ingredient, or if the list reads like a piece of prose, I stay away. I used to drink vitamin water, but upon looking at what’s in it, I found that the sugar and calorie levels alone were astounding. I felt betrayed as well, because my attempts to be healthier failed epically. =[

    It’s a tempting drink and marketed well. But all we really need to do is read past the witty stories on the side to know it’s not all that great.

  19. Might I suggest coconut water? It’s coming onto store shelves in a big way, and I dig it. It’s very low in sugar, but high in potassium. I love it as an after-workout drink because the high potassium content seems to help prevent muscle soreness. Way easier than eating three bananas.

  20. I told my husband about this and it turns out he’s been drinking Vitamin Water a few times a week after martial arts class. He was pissed when he found out it was no better than a soda! He figured it was like water but better. Luckily I never liked the taste and was disgusted when I read the label more closely.

  21. I wasn’t aware of that scam, cause they haven’t released vitaminwater, yet over here in Germany. This incident confirmed even more the bad image I already have about coke.
    But I have to admit, I can’t think of any commercial product from a joint stock company that keeps up to it’s healthy presentation. E.g. Danone Actimal, which should save you from getting a cold, total nonsense!

  22. It’s a shame what people will do for money. Just think how the world would be if everyone put their time and energy into making things that work, rather than just settling for what’s available!

  23. Ditto! Get the word out about this and if enough people know, it could cause a dent in their efforts.

    More likely, though, we’ll just avoid drinking the stuff ourselves and few other people will be the wiser. Sigh.

  24. Yup! Too bad this isn’t common practice…they don’t usually spend much time teaching kinds how to really read and interpret these labels in school.

  25. Colin, this post is right on target! Gosh, and I drink vitaminwater for karate … now I’m just going to drink smart water until another lawsuit comes out saying, “No consumer could reasonably be misled into thinking smart water was a healthy and smart beverage.” :-/

    Branding has got to come straight from the source … and straight from the TRUTH. If brands, companies, slogans, marketing, what have you, are built on a pyramid of lies upon lies, sooner or later, it’ll crumble. People don’t like lies and to be lied to. It’s just not fun.

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  27. I don’t understand the problem here. Just like anything else you consume you should read the lable. Just because it sounds healthy from the name doesn’t mean it is. To everyone who says they feel betrayed, it was your own fault. It’s your responsibility what you put in your body. Don’t push the blame off on the company making the product if you won’t actually check what that product is before putting it into your body. If you haven’t gotten it yet, companies exist to make profits. They arn’t here to make your life better, if their product does then you’re more likely to buy it, and they make more money. That’s the only reason they’re gonna make it better. All companies have one thing in mind and that’s profits. How have you people not caught on to this? Have you been keeping your head in the sand or something?

    • First, in the future, please post with your name. If you’re going to make a statement, especially one in which you call others fools, at least show the courage to put your name on your jeers.

      And for the record, I usually don’t allow this kind of anonymous bashing (or bashing of any kind, for that matter), but I let this one through to prove a point.

      That point is that the majority of business people are like THIS. I recently wrote a post about ethical business practices and posited that there are so many business people out there who see a business as a way to make money and nothing more.

      But to what end this philosophy? If you make money and every business out there is just out to make money, at the end of the day we suffer from diminishing returns on a massive scale. Eventually there will be nothing left to spend all that money on, and the people to blame are this person and his/her ilk.

      Yes, there is some degree of fault on the part of the customer, but only in that they didn’t respond to this sooner. I’m all about the government not getting involved with business, but since the dawn of corporatism and the corporation as a person, unfortunately there is little true recourse for a person against such a group.

      If Coke, a huge company with billions of dollars to spend in advertising, the funding of false studies, over-the-top branding and funding of lobbyists put out a drink that was poison, just pure poison, you say that they should be allowed to do so because they’re just trying to make a buck.

      That logic is BEYOND flawed, my friend, and if this is your approach to making money – and you see other human beings as just another dollar to be made – well, you might as well just rob banks instead. Same premise, but it’s a lot easier than setting up a business.

      Do not post without a name again (it won’t be allowed through) and especially not drivel like this (which you apparently know is drivel, otherwise you would have put your name on it).

      Think your argument through first, please.

  28. Really, you thought a sugary water drink was good for you, but were too busy to read a label? Poor baby.

  29. i don’t remember the commercials ever saying it was better than soda. even so, read the nutrition labels, it says what it has in it. they aren’t lying when the facts are in your face every time you take a drink.

    • With branding it’s not necessary to outright lie, only to insinuate very clearly, over and over and over. Vitamin Water is not a collection of vitamins and water, it’s sugar and water with some vitamins that are chemically synthesized. Few if any will actually be taken in by your body when you drink it, so they may as well call it ‘Colored Water’ for all the impact the vaunted vitamins have on the product and consumer.

      That’s why this is such a tricky issue…outright lying is an enforceable offense (and in this case, Vitamin Water actually DID get called out on their advertising, which promotes the drink as healthier than sodas, which is not the case), but dishonest branding is usually not.

      It’s up to you, of course, to decide whether or not you think this is a good thing, but I would say that in this case at least, the consumer will benefit as a result (and we’ll have to see if they muck it up beyond that by taking things too far, legally).

  30. Last time I checked there’s far less sugar in Vitamin Water, plus it shows right on the label that there are not very many vitamins in Vitamin Water. So how are you guys feeling betrayed by Coke?

    • Actually, that’s part of what’s so brilliant about how they present the information…it says 8 grams of sugar, but if you look up top on the nutritional info label, there are 2.5 servings per bottle. So actually, the sugar and caloric content is nearly identical to one of the more sugary sodas, Coke, and has more than many other less syrupy soft drinks.

      That’s the trick, though: you can say anything with statistics, and most corporations, politicians, bloggers, etc will manipulate them to prove whatever they want, in this case, that Vitamin Water is healthier than a normal soda when it isn’t.

      And why wouldn’t a drink called Vitamin Water be vitamin-focused? I think it’s a little idealistic to think that people will take the time to go through the stats for every purchase they make, as marketing and branding has become the resource for this kind of information over the past 50 years. Whether or not this is okay is another argument completely (I do believe people should be more aware of what they are buying and putting into their bodies), but the fact of the matter is that most people do not, and Coke takes advantage of that.

      If a drink were called just ‘Water,’ wouldn’t you be a bit shocked if upon further inspection and readjustment of the nutrition facts that it was, in fact, vodka?

  31. I think that’s the damage that’s really been done here: now people WILL be watching more closely, and when brands like Coke who pull this kind of branding dishonesty will hopefully be held accountable more frequently.

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  33. The issue is bigger than the branding methodology used by Coke for Vitaminwater.

    1.) How did the product get into health food stores?
    - Which distribution channels offered this product for sale? Whole Foods? Why aren’t stores like Whole Foods protecting their customers and their brand by selling products that represent their messaging and their customers best interests?

    2.) Why didn’t the FDA enforce labeling standards?
    - Words like ‘rescue,’ ‘energy’ and ‘endurance’ should not have been allowed to be used, especially not in combination with the fact that the labels claimed to lower the risk of chronic disease, eye disease, promote healthy joints, and support optimal immune function.

    FDA regulations say a product cannot derive it’s nutritional content solely through fortification. Read more on the jelly bean rule: http://www.nytimes.com/1994/05/05/us/fda-imposing-stricter-rules-on-food-labels.html

    3.) Branding doesn’t tell you what a product is, it tells you the image the brand wants. The healthy eating / organic rage is ripe with corporations exploiting the bandwagon mentality of consumers.
    - Most what is sold at your local fill-in-the-blank generic grocery store in America is full of gnarly preservatives and manufactured chemicals. With the exception of the perimeter of the store, it’s all a bunch of junk.
    - Vitaminwater is essentially sugar water with a few vitamins and natural coloring, making it one step up from Koolaid. Vitamin Water is sweet. There is clearly sugary component. And, there ARE vitamins added to the water, synthesized or not.
    - Apparently, there are 33 grams of sugar in a 20oz bottle of Vitaminwater (125 calories), which is significantly less than the 65 grams (240 calories) in a 20oz Coke.

    I do believe Coke has an inherent social responsibility to make quality products with clear branding and messaging. I don’t think they lied. I think they took advantage of hurried consumers who are increasingly aware they need to eat better. Regardless, there are more elements than branding at play. Consumers, distributional channels and government run consumer protection groups should be held accountable as well.

    Now, I’m in the mood for some plain old-fashioned water.

  34. This isn’t the first time a product of that nature was misleading to the public. Labeling sodas (7up) as natural was just as bad. Soda is not good for you, and anything that comes from a company built on sugary soft drinks with questionable ingredients….

    I think the lawsuits has its merits. The entire label is misleading. It’s sugar water disguised as a healthy drink. You want vitamin water? Take a multivitamin and drink a glad of water.

    A wolf in sheep’s clothing indeed.

    Good posts!

  35. Go non-profit brand which sued them! Thank god I didn’t drink much Vitamin Water anyway.. basically, I like making my own smoothies/drinks.. at least I know what’s in them!

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