June 11, 2012
Marketer's Remorse: Former Coke Marketing Exec Addresses Anti-Obesity Advocates To Atone for His Role In Coke's Dominant "Share of Stomach" Campaign — Putnam Says He Owes a "Large Karmic Debt" For the Number of Cokes He Sold
The junk-food-acceptance barometer is steadily rising in America — New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has announced plans to ban super-size sodas from his city's restaurants, movie theaters, sports arenas and bodegas; Disney will no longer run junk-food ads with its children's programming; First lady Michelle Obama's book about the White House vegetable garden, released last week, notes that the only drinks offered during family meals at home are milk and water — and the changing atmosphere has left at least one former marketer with a creeping sense of remorse. Addressing a ballroom full of public health officials and community activists, who gathered in Washington last week for a "National Soda Summit" on how to loosen the soda industry's grip on the American appetite, former Coca-Cola marketing exec Todd Putman stepped up to a podium ready to break with his past. "It took me 10 years to figure out that I have a large karmic debt to pay for the number of Cokes I sold across this country," said Putnam, a top marketer at Coke from 1997 to mid-2000, the Washington Post reports. As karmic restitution, Putnam came to give an inside account of what he contends has been a drive by Coca-Cola to replace not just its direct competitors but all beverages in the American diet — a campaign for what the company called "share of stomach." He wanted to warn about the industry's particular focus on young people and minorities — but mostly he wanted to level the playing field. "I'm not against soft drinks per se," he began carefully. "What I am for is balance of power. And I think the power has shifted in the wrong direction. The resources, the scale, the intelligence, the strategy these companies use, is intense. We need to take all that thinking . . . all that strategy and convert it — jujitsu it — to healthy products," he asserted, the Post reports.
Such a mission would have been inconceivable to the man who joined Coca-Cola back in 1997, Putman said during an interview before the speech. A Midwesterner with boyish looks, Putman had already made a name for himself at two other corporate heavyweights: Proctor & Gamble had recruited him straight out of Purdue University and given him his first taste of the profession that has become his life's passion. Disney brought him to Los Angeles to help brand the company's movie-inspired merchandise, the Washington Post reports.
Still, Coke was an even bigger league. "It's one of the great marketing machines of the world. You've got so many tools at your fingertips," said Putnam. "You're dealing with Michael Jackson, the NFL, multimillion-dollar decisions. If you're interested in moving consumers, then you're most happy when you move millions of consumers. … It's exciting, intoxicating, even. I felt like the king of the world," he added, reports Post writer N.C. Aizenman.