High Fructose Corn Syrup, not so sweet.

September 16, 2010

            Would a sugar taste as sweet by another name?

             I say absolutely. Even sweeter.

            High fructose corn syrup has become public enemy number one in the fight against obesity. Having successfully attacked trans-fat the food police have turned to high fructose corn syrup with great vim and vigor. And great success.

            Sales of high fructose corn syrup are in rapid decline. Consumption of corn-derived sweeteners sank 20% in the past decade compared to only a 3% decline in refined sugar.

            Just as we saw with trans-fat, food companies are racing to replace high fructose corn syrup with sugar in their products. Hunt’s ketchup, Gatorade, Wheat Thins, Ocean Spray juice and all the baked goods at Starbucks now are being touted as made with real sugar.

            But what is “real” and what is not? Hard to say. But when you give your product a name like “high fructose corn syrup,” it doesn’t sound very real at all. In fact, the name sounds dangerous.

            Yet most experts agree that sugar is sugar. “Leading scientists,” reported The New York Times, “say that high fructose corn syrup, made when various chemicals convert corn starch into syrup, is not any worse than sugar. Both sweeteners are made up of roughly equal amounts of glucose and fructose.”

            Ironically, what happens in a modern corn-refining plant is just like what happens in your mouth where an enzyme breaks up starch (a polymer made up of thousands of sugar molecules) into sucrose, glucose and fructose.

            But I am not here to argue about the science. Personally, I try to eat as little processed food as possible. Overly-processed foods and sodas containing either high fructose corn syrup or refined sugar are unhealthy and should be eaten sparingly.

            What I am here for is to analyze the branding of high fructose corn syrup.

            There is an interesting twist to this story because my Dad/partner Al Ries handled the advertising account for Corn Products International back in the mid-70’s.

            After the FDA approved high fructose corn syrup in the 1970’s, Corn Products hired Al to run a campaign to urge manufactures to switch to its high fructose corn syrup product. The main target was carbonated drinks since high fructose corn syrup was less expensive and also a liquid making easer to blend into drinks.

            The name used for the corn product was “55-percent high fructose corn syrup.” The 55 relates to the strength of the sugar, 55 is the same sweetness level as table sugar. Al’s first reaction to the name was “Wait a minute, that name is going to cause you problems! Why don’t you call it corn sugar?”

            Al’s agency developed a series of trade advertisements promoting corn-sugar. “Consider all three types of sugar,” said one headline. And the copy outlined the advantages of corn sugar over cane sugar and beet sugar.

Corn sugar001 verticle

           The ads were a hit, but neither Corn Products nor the corn industry did anything about changing the name of product. Would it have been easy to get the FDA to approve the “corn sugar” name? No. But it would have been worth the fight.

            Initially, the negatives of the high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) name didn’t hinder the rise of the category because the economics of high fructose corn syrup were so clear-cut. Because of its low cost and ease of use, HFCS now dominates the food and beverage sweetener business.

            Because it’s a syrup it’s clear to understand how much easier it is use. But why is high fructose corn syrup so cheap?

            A system of sugar tariffs and sugar quotas imposed in 1977 significantly increased the cost of imported sugar in the U.S. The cost of domestic sugar is artificially inflated to almost twice the global price. On top of that, the price of corn is artificially low because of government subsidies paid to growers.

            Today, HFCS is still cheap, but public opinion has turned against the sweetener leading to rapidly declining sales. What was the reaction of the Corn Refiners Association? Advertising. Two years ago, they started a $30 million campaign touting the “Sweet Surprise” of corn sugar. Did this help? No, of course not. Advertising is a terrible way to change a strongly-held perception.

            The perception is that high fructose corn syrup is worse for you than sugar. Well with a name like that, how could it not be?

             A name is important in creating a perception in the mind. And the not just the brand name, but the category name as well.

            Every brand has two names: a brand name and a category name. It’s not just Red Bull, it’s Red Bull energy drink.

            Too many marketers take the category name as a “given” or even worse they think it doesn’t matter. So all their efforts are spent on promoting their brand name, not the category names.

            This is a mistake. The category name is an extremely important element in the success of a brand. The consumer is more interested in the category than the brand. In the mind, the brand just represents the category. And if your category has the wrong name, you are going to be in trouble, no matter what the brand is.

            Take diet cola versus light beer. About 70 percent of carbonated beverages sold in America are regular-calorie products. Only about 30 percent are “diet” products.            

            Beer is different. Today, “light” beer accounts for about 60 percent of the U.S. market. And regular beer accounts for about 40 percent.

            Light beer is a roaring success. Diet cola and the other diet beverages are not.            

            One reason for the difference is the category names themselves. Calling a product a “diet” cola screams out loud and clear, “You’re not going to like the taste.”

            Calling a product a “light” beer sends a different psychological message, a message that can be twisted into a benefit. With a light beer, you can drink more of the product, as exploited in the famous Miller Lite campaign: “Tastes great. Less filling.”

            For corn-syrup producers, the high-fructose name was a time bomb. But it has taken decades for the bad name to sabotage the category.

            Outside the U.S., realizing their mistake, the major cola companies are using “light” as the category name and not “diet.” The recent success of Coca-Cola Zero shows dropping the “diet” is a better direction for a brand.

            The existence of “diet” colas sends a dual message to consumers, both of which are negative:

            (1) There are too many calories in regular colas.

            (2) Diet colas don’t taste as good as regular cola.

            On the other hand, few consumers react negatively to light beer. But suppose Anheuser-Busch had called its leading brand “Diet Budweiser?”

Diet bud

            Joe Sixpack would have laughed. And ordered a Miller Lite.

            A good category name should be simple, easy to remember and imply a benefit.

            What if Activia had called its product “high bacteria microorganism yogurt?” Technically, that is what Activia is. But instead they used the much better “probiotics” category name.

Activia fake
            Probiotics sounds like a benefit. Corn sugar sounds like sugar. High fructose sounds like hazardous. Too bad the industry didn’t take Al’s advice in the 1970’s and change the name to “corn sugar.” Unfortunately now it might be too late to do today.


Corn sugar
You can also check out my segment from yesterday's CNBC's Power Lunch where I discuss HFCS.