Todd Putman once led marketing at Coca-Cola. He now regrets his work and… (Astrid Riecken/For The…)
Todd Putman stepped up to a podium Thursday ready to break with his past.
Stretched before him was a ballroom full of public health officials and community activists, gathered in Washington for a “National Soda Summit” on how to loosen the soda industry’s grip on the American appetite.
The conference marked the latest salvo in a barrage of recent attacks on makers of unhealthy food and beverages, especially sodas.
New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I) has announced plans to ban super-size sodas from his city’s restaurants, movie theaters, sports arenas and bodegas. Disney will no longer run junk-food ads with its children’s programming. First lady Michelle Obama’s book about the White House vegetable garden, released Tuesday, notes that the only drinks offered during family meals at home are milk and water.
The logic behind these moves has been repeated so often it is practically a mantra: The nation is in the throes of an obesity crisis and sodas account for an outsize share of the sugar pouring into American bellies.
Putman, 51, shares that view. But he is also driven by another motive: From 1997 to mid-2000, he was a top marketing executive at Coca-Cola.
“It took me 10 years to figure out that I have a large karmic debt to pay for the number of Cokes I sold across this country,” he said.
On Thursday, he came to settle it.
He wanted to give an inside account of what he contends has been a drive by Coca-Cola to replace not just its direct competitors but all beverages in the American diet — a campaign for what the company called “share of stomach.” He wanted to warn about the industry’s particular focus on young people and minorities.
But mostly he wanted to level the playing field.
“I’m not against soft drinks per se,” he began carefully. “What I am for is balance of power. And I think the power has shifted in the wrong direction. The resources, the scale, the intelligence, the strategy these companies use is intense.
“We need to take all that thinking . . . all that strategy and convert it — jujitsu it — to healthy products.”
Such a mission would have been inconceivable to the man who joined Coca-Cola back in 1997, Putman said during an interview before the speech.
A Midwesterner with boyish looks, Putman had already made a name for himself at two other corporate heavyweights: Proctor & Gamble had recruited him straight out of Purdue University and given him his first taste of the profession that has become his life’s passion. Disney brought him to Los Angeles to help brand the company’s movie-inspired merchandise.
Still, Coke was an even bigger league.
“It’s one of the great marketing machines of the world. You’ve got so many tools at your fingertips. . . . You’re dealing with Michael Jackson, the NFL, multimillion-dollar decisions,” he said. “If you’re interested in moving consumers, then you’re most happy when you move millions of consumers. . . . It’s exciting, intoxicating, even. I felt like the king of the world.”
For all the range and reach of Coke’s marketing operation, Putman said he quickly learned it was built around one goal: per capita consumption. “How can we drive more ounces into more bodies more often?”
The term of art among company executives was one Putman had never heard before: “share of stomach.”
“It was a mind-bending paradigm shift for me. We weren’t trying to get share of market. We weren’t about trying to beat Pepsi or Mountain Dew. We were about trying to beat everything.”
Putman embraced the challenge with gusto. In the interview, he recalled giving a presentation in which he showed a chart illustrating how consumption of milk had dropped over time while consumption of a sugary soda — he can no longer remember which product — had risen.
When he pointed to the place where the two lines crossed — the moment in which soda surpassed milk — Putman remembers swelling with pride.
“I did not have any reaction beyond, ‘We are winning,’ ” he said. “It’s shocking to me now. But it was not shocking to me then in any way, shape or form. . . . We were really uninformed relative to the health issues.”
Contacted for a response to Putman’s comments, a spokesman for Coca-Cola, Ben Sheidler, said share of stomach is no longer “part of our company’s strategy.”
“Todd Putman left Coca-Cola over 12 years ago after working here for only three years,” Sheidler said. “Since Putman left, our business has changed dramatically.”
As an example, he said that 41 percent of the total volume of Coca-Cola trademark products sold in North America is now low- or no-calorie — up from 1 percent in 1982 and 32 percent in 1999.
The company has also voluntarily removed full-calorie carbonated drinks from schools, and voluntarily lists calorie information on its packages, Sheidler said.