South Africa


Academic research shows Coca-Cola is ‘part of the family’ for young people in SA and Nigeria

Academic research shows Coca-Cola is ‘part of the family’ for young people in SA and Nigeria
The volume of soft drink consumption in Africa was expected to rise by almost 30% between 2015 and 2020. (Photo: Gallo Images / Jacques Stander)

Young adults are so conditioned to drinking ‘Coke’ that they don’t question its seat at the family table, despite sugar-sweetened beverages having clear links to non-communicable diseases.

It has developed some of the best and most effective advertising taglines in the world: since its inception in 1886, the Coca-Cola Company has encouraged customers to “enjoy a glass of liquid laughter”, “open happiness” and “enjoy the feeling”, while declaring in 2010 that it was “just getting started”. It might as well have added, “in Africa”.

The multinational beverage brand’s marketing strategies and its cultural and symbolic embedding in the lives of undergraduates aged between 18 and 24 in South Africa and Nigeria are explored in Dr Olutobi Akingbade’s 2020 thesis, presented in a webinar by the Centre for the Advancement of Non-Racialism and Democracy (Canrad) at Nelson Mandela University in Gqeberha (Port Elizabeth).

Akingbade, a post-doctoral research fellow at Canrad, detailed his research into normalising discourse about sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) as a “local” drink – so familiar and prized that it was likened as being part of the family.

In “Like an older family member: Young Africans’ perceptions of Coca-Cola’s sugar-sweetened beverage brand in South Africa and Nigeria”, Akingbade discusses how the youth market is not only being targeted by the industry, but – because the discourse around sugar-sweetened beverages has been so normalised – feeds the loyal and “enthusiastic consumption” of sweetened beverages.

Globally, consumption of sugar has been on the rise since the 1960s and sugar-sweetened beverage consumption is a significant contributor to sugar intake.

Habitual consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages is directly linked to the sharp increase in obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other diet-related non-communicable diseases (NCDs), which are responsible for more than 70% of deaths recorded worldwide. Akingbade noted that in 2016 40.5 million of the 59.6 million global deaths were due to NCDs.

NCDs also heighten the risk of severe illness and death for Covid-19 patients.

A Wits PRICELESS (Priority Cost-Effective Lessons for System Strengthening South Africa) report on lessons learnt from a campaign for tax on sugar-sweetened beverages said South Africans were among the world’s top 10 consumers of sugary drinks.

Meanwhile, the global growth rate in terms of reach and market share of multinational food and beverage companies that produce sugar-sweetened beverages and other “palatable and ready to consume” products is becoming more evident, despite the pervasiveness of overweight, obesity and other diet-related NCDs.

“Habitual SSB consumption plays a considerable role in the upsurge in sugar intakes in most countries and a sharp rise in diet-related non-communicable diseases, which are responsible for 70% of deaths globally. While there’s a growing awareness of reach and market share of multinational food and beverage companies that produce sugar-sweetened beverages and other palatable and ready-to-eat consumer products becoming more evident in the West, obesity, overweight and other diet-related NCDs are pervasive,” Akingbade explains.

That growing awareness is forcing multinationals to develop new products, such as hard seltzer (an alcoholic flavoured water) in the global north, while targeting Africa and other developing nations to make up for stagnation in sales elsewhere.

With little to no restrictions on marketing these sugary and other junk food products to children, and the explosion of social media, the developing world presents the greatest opportunities for multinationals.

“We saw the same with the tobacco industry in the 1960s: When Western countries started introducing restrictions on sales and marketing, the tobacco companies started targeting middle income and developing markets,” says Akingbade, noting that Africa is deemed to be Coca-Cola’s “last frontier” as the multinational company seeks expansion.

Citing a study by Canadian business research group Canadean, Akingbade said the volume of soft drink consumption in Africa was expected to rise by almost 30% between 2015 and 2020.

The company’s Global Beverage Forecast Report estimated that the continent will consume 33,266 million litres of soft drinks in 2020, including 15,670 million litres of carbonates; up from the 25,680 million litres recorded in 2014, of which 11,618 million litres were carbonates.

The predicted increases in total volumes were partially attributed to population growth, but the number of litres consumed per capita was forecast to rise by 9.74% over the same period.

The Canadean report surveyed all commercial multinational beverage categories for several years and the five-year forecast period, to identify future trends and gain insight into potential drivers of consumption.

In 2016, Coca-Cola’s then CEO Muhtar Kent admitted to CNN: “The rate of growth in Africa is higher than that of Western markets and other parts of the world, so it’ll continue to become a larger and larger part of our revenue.”

In 2019, his successor James Quincey told CNBC Africa that he believed the continent to be its core growth engine in the future. “Africa is not nearly as representative of our total numbers as the population would make it be (sic). And the population is going to grow much faster than the average of the world. It’s the youngest billion people in the world. The median age in Africa is half of Europe. So, whatever it is today, it should be much bigger tomorrow.”

Akingbade’s focus for his doctoral thesis, which has not yet been published, is specifically young Africans in South Africa and Nigeria because both countries have experienced similar rapid urbanisation which drives consumption of fast food.

The research shows that young adults are gaining weight faster than any other age group, which is related to the shift by “Big Food” companies to use more social, digital and mobile media as a strategic marketing platform to target the market.

“It’s evident in the marketing budgets and expenditures of Coca-Cola and other big food companies that target young adults, as stated by Coca-Cola in 2017 because youngsters do not care about their health yet,” he says.

While coming up with policies to mitigate NCDs is crucial, understanding the consumer is critical. “These are habitual and enthusiastic consumers.”

During the course of his qualitative analysis, Akingbade expanded his research from Nigeria to South Africa after identifying commonalities between the two countries. In both countries, he found Coca-Cola’s cultural embeddedness as a sugar-sweetened beverage and as a brand had solidified in the youth market, both consciously and unconsciously.

Respondents described “Coke” as, for example, “…an older family member that I just grew to know”, adding that “it’s not a conscious thing. I just know that I’ve come to believe so much in Coca-Cola and I think it’s futile to even try to recount how the whole thing began,” (Nigeria); and,

“Not sure I can remember my childhood memories, I remember visiting my dad’s office and he always had a can of Coke at the corner of his desk. I always wondered why Coke, though. I never asked him, but I just think at least it’s something cool to enjoy,” (SA); and,

“I don’t do alcoholic brands but this is the only soft drink I take. It’s an old brand that stood the test of time.” (Nigeria).

Respondents could not articulate how the product became part of their daily family lives – they just “knew” Coke as an older family member, an intergenerational brand that predated them, as “one of us”.

“It seemed to me then as a child that having a chilled bottle of Coke was part of my Sundays as a reward for being a good girl and staying attentive during service, unlike some other troublesome kids. How I looked forward to these Sundays as a kid.”

Meaning lies at the heart of consumer preferences and lifestyle practices. Coke has been viewed subconsciously as a reward for hard work and good behaviour and enjoyable family time. 

And young consumers hold Coke to be a “local” sugar-sweetened beverage, ie, not foreign. “It’s ours.”

On the question of consumer agency, Akingbade says it’s beyond conscious consumption, as consumers drink Coke automatically; it is that normalised.

What should be done to break the cycle? Akingbade calls for deliberate advocacy, specifically targeting young adults.

“Look at the people who they will listen to: The popular celebrities and influencers, who need to add their voice to this issue because that will resonate” — rather than a top-down approach of introducing policies. MC/DM


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