PepsiCo’s Tropicana deal: Rx for brands?

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Heard about the ‘non-commercial’ deal between PepsiCo India and the Indian Medical Association? In a first for PepsiCo across all markets, doctors will be endorsing Tropicana and Quaker Oats in India. Apparently the IMA also endorsed Eureka Forbes, Dettol and Disprin in the past. Reports say that the IMA was paid Rs.5mn towards a general fund. Ahem. Said IMA’s immediate past president, Dr Ajay Kumar, who negotiated the deal with the company in India: “After PepsiCo approached us, we verified all their claims. Initially, there was some resistance on whether the IMA should endorse a company that also makes colas, but our research showed that Tropicana pure juices and Quaker have scientifically proven health benefits.” Guess who was first to raise a ruckus? Sunita Narain of Centre for Science & Environment and the pesticides fame. The question being asked is: ‘what’s the difference between Tropicana and any other fruit juice? Why are they endorsing only one particular brand?’. Maybe other brands did not approach IMA! This is in line with PepsiCo’s global chief Indra Nooyi’s vision to increase the health focus of the company and make PepsiCo into a Foods brand.

Will it open the floodgates for more such requests from business houses if this trend continues? What prevents an AC brand to request for an endorsement since they provide say, ‘most hygienic air cooling’?

Or am I over reacting? We have seen medical associations ‘endorse’ brands in the past. Indian Dental Association’s ‘seal of approval’ or ‘seal of endorsement’ has come in some toothpastes. And dermatologists approve shampoo brands. Such a presence of ‘approval’ from third-party specialists is a proven tool for marketers. And when they cannot be shown as directly endorsing a brand, models in white coats serve the purpose.

Marketers will do everything they can, to imbue their brand with differentiation. It’s only fair. Quaker Oats is in the competitive space with Kelloggs and other breakfast brands. Tropicana is fighting big brands like Dabur in its category. If a third-party specialist endorsement from a body like IMA connotes quality, it is to their advantage. The IMA will justify it as an effort to promote health. The danger lies in too many professional and quasi-professional getting into the picture to endorse brands. It may also lead to some companies trying to gain influence with consumers in an unfair manner. Witness the development of coined words like ‘Cosmecuticals’ (products that are claimed, primarily by those within the cosmetic industry, to have drug-like benefits) by the skin care category in the US.  Such terms convey to the general public that such brands are ‘like pharmaceuticals’ and hence have gone through tests.

Is there a thin line? Will commercial interests prevail over ethical practice? What say?

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