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The Whiteboard: Too sweet, or tout de suite? Would Coke minus sugar be the same brand?

It's the year 2075. Disturbing new studies published in the New England Journal of Medicine show that excessive consumption of social media leads to deficiencies in cognitive function, as well as early-onset carpal tunnel injuries in children as young as 14. Facebook responds with Facebook Lite, which limits total friends to 1,000, BFFs to 100, and likes-per-day to 50. Health advocates applaud. Loyal Facebook fans are outraged and attempt a boycott, but most hold out for only a few hours.

Obviously, I made that up. But here's something authentic:

Consumers, public health officials and government officials are becoming increasingly concerned about the public health consequences associated with obesity, particularly among young people. In addition, some researchers, health advocates and dietary guidelines are encouraging consumers to reduce consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, including those sweetened with HFCS or other nutritive sweeteners.

These very matter-of-fact statements come from a recent Coca-Cola annual report, in which they describe the risks that could diminish their financial performance. The trend to reduce consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages was listed first, ahead of increased competition, water-quality issues and the credit crisis.

With the consumption of soft drinks in general declining every year for the last decade, what will happen to the world's most valuable brand? Could a Coke without sugar still taste as sweet?

Al Ries, co-author of the landmark marketing book "Positioning," plus other titles, and now a columnist for "Ad Age," suggested in an April article that Coke should discontinue the sugared version of its flagship brand, drop "Diet" from its diet cola and use the slogan, "Coca-Cola: The real thing without the calories." He touted the strategic brilliance of his suggestion since it would force Pepsi to either copy Coke's move or look like the bad guy for continuing to sell sugar water to kids.

Needless to say, Mr. Ries is not being considered for a position on the Coke board of directors.

Prediction: Such a drastic move would result in A.) a social media extravaganza that would bring the Idiocracy to new heights of apoplexy; and 2.) Mexican Coke would become the new leading import in the U.S., surpassing foreign oil in dollar value.

It is, however, no small issue, as Coke admits in its publication. The long-term health effects of consuming many types of popular food and beverages is getting increased attention for a variety of social and cultural reasons, and manufacturers are paying close attention.

It was only 10 years ago that the Atkins Diet sucker-punched any product with a carbohydrate percentage on its nutritional panel. At the height of its popularity, it was estimated that 1 in 11 adults was on the diet, according to a report on National Public Radio. This large following was blamed for declines in the sales of carbohydrate-heavy foods such as pasta and rice; in 2003, sales were down 8.2 and 4.6 percent, respectively, NPR reported. Food companies responded as fast as they could with reduced-carb versions of their products to try and recover some of their lost sales.

But here's why Coke will survive, and likely thrive, as a brand and a company, and it's not because it already has three diet colas: Diet Coke (which now outsells regular Pepsi), Coke Zero and, yes, Tab still exists. It's because the Coke brand isn't really about a sugar buzz and caffeine hit. It's about being part of a joyful lifestyle where Coke refreshes not just you, but everything around you.

Coke's secret formula still exists, but don't kid yourself if you think it hasn't been tweaked over the years. The brand transcends the product itself and is about the idea, the promise described with their current slogan as "Open happiness." Ahhh.

Coke will likely begin to evolve its sugar content in a way that responds to cultural trends and regulatory prodding, but it's far more likely to be a few calories at a time, rather than cold turkey as Mr. Ries has suggested. Websites such as killercoke.com may blather about the evil cola company that offers us far more sugar in our diets than we should voluntarily consume, but Coke knows that its brand connects with its customers in the mind and in the heart far more than it does in the stomach.

Coke may have to adjust its product over time, but its brand is still rock solid.

David Taylor is president of Lancaster-based Taylor Brand Group, which specializes in brand development and marketing technology. Contact him via www.taylorbrandgroup.com.

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