American Beverage Association takes fresh approach to
The notion of a
“soft drink” has evolved dramatically over the past few
decades. Once governed exclusively by colas, the soft drink world now
encompasses everything from traditional products to sports drinks, bottled
waters, teas and juices in hundreds of new flavors, manufactured by a range
of beverage companies.
Accordingly, the National Soft Drink Association was
recently rechristened the American Beverage Association (ABA) to reflect
the reality of today’s market, and to better position the
organization to take on new challenges.
“Over time, we began to represent a much broader
portfolio because our members began to manufacture and distribute waters,
sports drinks, juices, teas and dairy-based beverages,” says Kathleen
Dezio, ABA vice president of communications. “Then we began to work
on a lot of different issues that relate to those other products, and our
members wanted our name to reflect the broader array of beverages our companies make.”
The new name also reflects the growth of the Washington, D.C.-based association. Originally founded as a
bottler organization, ABA’s membership now includes parent beverage
companies such as industry giants Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola and Cadbury
Schweppes Americas Beverages. These franchise companies were
previously involved in the association as non-members, providing funding
for various scientific, regulatory and legislative initiatives. However,
after a period of industry consolidation in the mid-1990s, the parent
companies came into the organization, giving its membership a broader
scope. Its membership also includes industry suppliers that manufacture and
sell products and services such as packaging, machinery, equipment and
Members proved to be the driving force behind the
association’s name change. ABA conducted focus groups with a sample
of members and found that, for the most part, everyone recognized the need
for a change and supported the move.
“The last time we changed our name was in 1966
when Coke had half a dozen brands and Pepsi had four or so,” says
Dezio. “If you go to the Coke, Pepsi or Cadbury Schweppes Web sites
today, you will see 50 to 100 brands listed in
North America alone. That illustrates the explosion of choice these
companies have made available in recent years.”
Beverages and the obesity/nutrition debate
ABA’s name change and rebranding effort comes at
a time when the majority of the association’s resources are devoted
to defending member companies’ products from attack. As the national
debate over nutrition and obesity rages, soft drinks have been cast in a
harsh light; much of this traces back to the 1998 Center for Science in the
Public Interest report, “Liquid Candy: How Soft Drinks Are Harming
Americans’ Health,” which charged that soft drinks contribute
to poor nutrition among children and teens.
Since then, CSPI and other groups have sought to
restrict the sale of soft drinks in schools as part of a larger effort to
combat the growing problem of childhood obesity and related health issues.
“The obesity issue has heated up on a much
broader scale over the years, and as a result, attacks are now common on
restaurants and on many different types of foods and beverages, not just
soft drinks,” says ABA Acting President Jim Finkelstein. “Our
national polling shows that concern about obesity, especially in children,
takes precedence over almost every other health issue and over many other
non-health issues. Our goal is to make sure the discussion doesn’t
become irrational and is balanced, fair and scientifically based instead of
To that end, ABA’s scientific affairs staff
works with member company scientists to develop response strategies and to
determine funding for scientific research. The association provides
non-restricted grants to universities and other institutions for
independent studies that explore questions about beverage and ingredient
health issues in a science-based, factual way.
“Our companies are unified in wanting to take a
leadership role in obesity/nutrition issues,” says Finkelstein.
“In concert with our member companies, the association is working
hard to ensure that our program is increasingly effective in addressing
Even the association’s recent name change
factors into the nutrition debate. As Dezio notes, despite what often seems
like a media onslaught, there is still generally high regard for the industry. However, many in the media and the general
public don’t realize that today’s soft drink companies also
manufacture and distribute a wide variety of beverages beyond traditional
colas, including bottled water, juice, juice drinks, teas, sports drinks
and dairy-based beverages.
“To its credit, this industry has put a lot of
money into supporting independent, solid scientific research whenever any
questions arise about its products. Our member companies have also
diversified their products to follow changing consumer needs and
interest,” says Dezio. “As a result, consumers have more
choices than ever before. Whether you’re talking about new choices
for children or more choices for consumers battling weight issues or
choices for people struggling with diabetes, there are all kinds of
beverage products from which to choose today. However, that message
isn’t out in the way that it ought to be.”
To enhance ABA’s
ability to respond to attacks on the beverage industry, Dezio heads the
association’s rapid-response team, situated in a new media center in
the association’s Washington headquarters. Her team is responsible
for coordinating with member companies, state associations and others on
both offensive and defensive industry communication efforts.
Tracking national and local issues
Nutrition isn’t the only issue on ABA’s
agenda. While it plays a key role in obesity and nutrition issues, the
association’s federal affairs division also works on a host of
regulatory and legislative issues affecting industry operations at all
levels, from plants to corporate.
This year, ABA is focused on labeling uniformity as a
key issue. While the Food and Drug Administration sets national labeling
requirements for beverages and other food products, there is nothing in
place to prevent individual states from requiring additional labeling,
which can be troublesome for beverage companies that distribute products
across state lines. ABA is working to persuade Congress to institute
labeling uniformity, with FDA as the sole authority nationwide.
“Uniformity would ensure that we don’t
have a crazy quilt of labeling requirements in every state across the
country,” says Finkelstein. “FDA’s labeling decisions
should be the final word across the nation, preempting state labeling
Environmental issues are also at the forefront of
ABA’s efforts. The association works with its member companies to
encourage recycling and reduce litter. Because the beverage industry
generates numerous “empties” in the form of aluminum cans,
glass and PET bottles, ABA members pledge to use recycled or reusable
packaging, to design packaging for optimum recyclability, and to educate
consumers on proper waste management.
In an effort to encourage recycling, some states have
instituted deposit programs, which place a pre-paid fee on certain beverage
containers, requiring consumers to return the containers to designated
locations to reclaim the fee. ABA and its members are opposed to deposit
programs (also known as “bottle bills”) on the grounds that
comprehensive recycling programs are more effective at controlling solid
waste, and that deposits amount to a “hidden tax” on businesses
ABA’s state government affairs team works
closely with members on nutrition, recycling and myriad other issues, and
supports state associations around the country in their work on local
issues affecting the industry.
“We never lose sight of our legislative
responsibilities both federally and in the states,” says Finkelstein.
“Obesity and other issues are bigger issues in the states than in
Washington, and they’re tougher to fight in the states because
you’re dealing with 50 legislatures and maybe 10,000 school
To carry out its mission, ABA has a Washington-based
staff of 34. Its 20-member board includes representatives from Coca-Cola,
Pepsi-Cola and Cadbury Schweppes Americas Beverages as well as smaller
beverage companies, and is headed by Ralph D. Crowley, president and chief
executive officer of Massachusetts- based Polar Beverages.
The ABA Board plays a
hands-on role in critical association functions. One of its current
priorities is to appoint a new association president to replace longtime
president William L. Ball III. The presidential search is on a fast track,
with industry executives hoping to name a new chief in the near future.
“Board committees drill down into the details on
issues. The budget and finance committee is crucial because it oversees and
approves budgets and expenditures,” says Finkelstein. “The
larger board is more strategic in its thinking and takes a broad view in
deciding what direction to take on major issues. We also involve industry
professionals who are not board members, who
bring their expertise to the table, particularly in scientific and
regulatory affairs. That helps us to capitalize on the capabilities within
the companies and throughout the industry.”
Regardless of the issue, armed with a new name, a new
outlook and the broad support of its members, the American Beverage
Association appears ready for the challenge. BI
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