With a full pantry of drinks beyond its sugared sodas, Coke is in good shape to mix and match beverage offerings to respond to public concern over the poor eating habits that lead to youth obesity. But it is equally important that Coke has made it clear to its bottlers that school officials call the shots here, and to offer officials help, such as timing devices that limit vending machine operating hours.
For better or worse, the nation's schools are a valuable "place-based market." Coke has contracts with thousands of school districts, and pays for the opportunity to win brand allegiance from young consumers. School boards have become dependent on marketer payments to finance the extras of school life: athletics, bands and other activities. But however much marketers might like to be seen as school "partners," they must never lose sight of the fact that they are guests-and that their presence is a lightning rod for critics of business eager to attack marketer values and conduct.
No set of marketing guidelines will satisfy those who believe schools should be totally off limits to business, or that they have a duty to serve only food and drinks that pass muster with the sternest nutritionists. Most parents, for now, are less rigid. But Coke and other marketers are on perpetual "probation" in the schools. They should conduct themselves as if one bad decision could get them kicked out of school -because that's the way it just might be.