Until last year, I didn’t know about High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS). Like anything in life, you only notice some things when you try them. I never noticed how bad American Coca Cola tasted until I spent 3 months in Costa Rica getting used to original-recipe Coca Cola.
Original recipe means the sweetener is real cane sugar. Most North Americans don’t realise it, but ever since Coca Cola sheepishly brought back Coca Cola Classic in response to the New Coke protests in 1985, they pulled a fast one on consumers. Coca Cola before New Coke was made with real sugar in America. Coca Cola Classic post-New Coke was sneakily reformulated with High Fructose Corn Syrup as the sweetener. HFCS has been cheaper than real sugar for years because of huge government subsidies for corn production. From Mexico down to South America, Coca Cola is still made with cane sugar.
Pepsi followed Coca Cola’s US example a few years later and switched to HFCS. However, there are signs their marketing execs are testing the waters for bringing sugar back. They launched “throwback” versions of Pepsi and Mountain Dew, made with real sugar for a limited time earlier this year. They refuse to commit to changing the recipe for good, but I believe this is a huge opportunity for Pepsi to take the high road.
1. According to the USDA, prices of cane sugar are higher than ever; the cost-per-pound is at a record high 30 cents. However, Corn Syrup is catching up; probably because so many manufacturers have committed to its use. HFCS is not far off at about 25 cents per pound. If price similarity between the two sweeteners is maintained, the accountants and bottlers might accept the switch back to the real thing.
2. Moms around the world are discovering the evils of HFCS, and rumours and evidence that it’s one of the biggest reasons why American kids are fatter than ever are accelerating.
3. As mentioned earlier, and evidenced by Facebook groups such as I Love Mexican Coke, people realise the product superiority as soon as they try the real real thing. People are voting with their wallets and Wegman’s and other supermarkets all over the USA are stocking Mexican Coke to satisfy demand.
4. Real Sugar used to be a commodity. Now it can be an ingredient brand. It’s an instantly noticeable reminder to be placed on the front of cans, to show that the company cares about some semblance of naturalness. The same can’t be said of the opposite: Pepsi: sweetened with Corn! Get that crunchy yellow niblet corn flavour in every sip!
If I were Pepsi, I would get the clearance from the accountants, and go for the switch back to real sugar. It would be a coup; in a category of sameness where emotional bonds are all the marketing team has to go on, they would achieve real differentiation. Real differentiation that (a) isn’t much more expensive (b) is less bad for kids (c) tastes better and (d) can be highlighted easily.
Finally, depending on how fast Coca Cola responds with their own switchback, Pepsi can reposition Coke as the company that tried as long as possible to pull a fast one on consumers by selling them a soft drink that was mostly water and corn.
Coca Cola made with corn syrup is like a Margarita made with the cheapest tequila, the cheapest triple sec, or god forbid, corn-syrup based Margarita Mix.