Coca-Cola insists it is the real thing when it comes to tackling obesity

Coca-Cola’s UK and Ireland general manager is adamant that the company is playing its part in the fight against obesity

Jon Woods, Coca-Cola's UK and Ireland general manager, believes the soft drinks giant can help fight obesity.

The Department of Health secretary general, on the other hand, believes Coke is part of the problem. Ambrose McLoughlin says one of the ways Ireland could tackle obesity would be to restrict availability of so-called “top shelf” items such as fizzy drinks, which are not necessary for human health. He says there is “significant evidence” that fizzy drinks contribute to childhood obesity.

Sitting in the boardroom of the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre in Dublin, Woods does not shy away from the topic. Indeed, he is eager to talk about it. He believes obesity is a serious problem. However, he does not accept that soft drinks are to blame.

“Obesity is a problem is Ireland. It costs the HSE over €1 billion per year. We are often front and centre of the obesity conversation and whose fault it is,” he say, before adding that “just 3 per cent of the daily intake of calories of Irish people comes from soft drinks”.


The Northern Irishman is adamant that Coca-Cola is playing its part in the fight against obesity.

“We don’t stand by and let the obesity epidemic happen around us. We launched diet coke 30 years ago when people were first thinking about weight.

“We are clear about what’s in our products. We are reformulating to take calories out. We said we wouldn’t market our product to under-12s, and we said we’d get more people active. We don’t buy advertising on TV where more than 35 per cent of the audience is under 12.

The company is also investing €2 million over the next three years in Dublin Bikes “to get more people active”.

We are investing €3 million in bike schemes in Cork, Limerick and Galway.”

As part of that sponsorship deal the number of Dublin bikes will treble to 1,500, and the scheme will be rebranded as Coca-Cola Zero Dublin bikes. The deal also means there will be 100 docking stations by the end of the summer.

The public bike schemes for the cities of Cork, Limerick and Galway will be launched this autumn, with Cork receiving 320 bikes, 31 station and 635 stands. Limerick will receive 215 bikes, 23 stations and 445 stands, while Galway will get 205 bikes, 19 stations and 395 stands.

The company has already relaunched Sprite in Ireland with 30 per cent less sugar after switching to using a natural zero-calorie sweetener made from the stevia plant. That has reduced calories. It has also launched a smaller 330ml bottle in Ireland.

“Over the next three years we will reduce the calories in our soft drinks by 5 per cent – that is our commitment in Ireland.”

Woods says it is a challenge taking calories out without changing the taste.

“The drinks have to taste great still. We are good at creating low and no-calorie versions of regular products.”

Strong appeal

“Coca-Cola Life is the first Coke available with the natural sweetener Stevia. We’ll see how it goes in the UK (before launching in Ireland). The research in Great Britain shows that if we can provide Coke with 30 per cent less sugar and sweeteners from natural sources then that has quite a strong appeal.”

So what does Woods have to say about the artificial sweetener aspartame, its clouded past and its use in Diet Coke.

“Aspartame is probably the most researched additive in the world. The EU last year said Aspartame is absolutely safe. We have an absolute preoccupation with safety and taste.”

There is no doubt the job of marketing soft drinks has become more difficult. In April Coca-Cola announced global production volumes had declined for the first time in 15 years due to people cutting back on carbonated drinks and a tax on sugary beverages in Mexico.

The company hopes the “Share a Coke” campaign which is returning this summer will boost sales. The campaign was originally trialled in Australia in 2011 and produced some impressive results, with young adult consumption rising 7 per cent.

The campaign was introduced to Ireland last summer when bottles appeared with people’s names, such as John and Sarah, displayed where the Coke name usually is.

Popular names

“The Share a Coke campaign is just about the most successful marketing campaign we’ve ever done. We identified the top 250 most popular names in Ireland based on the census. The campaign idea came from Australia.

“There is something quite brave about a brand that takes its name off packaging and puts someone else’s name on it.”

The company will feature 500 names as part of the campaign this summer, including some nicknames.

“Nintey per cent of the Irish population will be able to find their name. If you can’t find your name we have a website you can go to and we’ll personalise your bottle and send it to you. We are willing to take risks to make the brand stand out and be special.”

Woods says the advantage of having markets all over the world is that you come across a lot of interesting ideas.

“We operate in 206 markets around the world. Basically everywhere bar Cuba and North Korea.”

It’s not the first time the drinks company has had such a successful and powerful advertising campaign. The company is responsible for some of the most famous TV ads in history, including the “Holidays are coming”ad which features a fleet of twinkling Coca-Cola trucks making their way across a snowy landscape for Christmas.

“We show the Coca-Cola lorries ad every year in Ireland. For a lot of people in Ireland, seeing it is the signal that Christmas has arrived. One year we didn’t show it and we had so many complaints.”

Health conscious

Despite being the UK and Ireland head of Coca-Cola, Woods is very health conscious. “I run and I’m quite into mountain biking. I normally wear an activity tracker everywhere, which tracks my steps. I’ve realised from it that I sit around too much. You need to get the balance right.”

Food and drink have been part of his entire career. He joined Cadbury straight out of college, working first in human resources and then as part of the sales team.

From there he moved to Anheuser-Busch InBev, where he was a sales director and then business development director. He was appointed general manager of Coca-Cola UK and Ireland in 2010.

So what does his kids think of their Dad working for a soft drinks giant?

“The kids are happy I work for Coke. Though they’d be happier if I worked at Cadbury.”