The PepsiCo Challenge

I went into a Shell garage for a paper and I saw some eye-catching signage promoting the Shell shop’s new sandwich/snack/drink range, Deli2go. Nothing unusual about this. Since the success of BP’s Wild Bean Café, petroleum giants have been falling over themselves to massage their garage shops upmarket. Deli2go is Shell’s go at this. The poster I saw was doing little more than advertise a “meal deal” promotion, where you pay a fixed price of £3.99 for a pre-packed sandwich, some kind of snack like a bag of crisps or a sausage roll, and a drink, such as a Coke, or a juice. I’m sure this will appeal to drivers looking for a quick fix of carbohydrate-based fuel, and will fool a few people into buying three items when they only want, or need, one or two. What tickled me about the promotion was this line, which appears underneath a mocked-up image of a wicker basket lined with gingham, containing the sandwich, crisps and Coke:

Inspired by farmers’ markets

Inspired by farmers’ markets? Have you ever heard anything so flimsy and pathetic? I’ve looked into it, and Deli2go use things like “farm-assured” cheese and “line and pole-caught” fish, which is to be praised and the veracity of whose ethical claims is not to be queried, but to throw in the weasel phrase “inspired by” and then link takeaway food to “farmers’ markets” is a cosmic joke. Since actual farmers’ markets are all about the producer cutting out the middle man and bringing their produce direct to consumers, which part of “farmers’ markets” is the processing of produce by a third party, packaging it up, distributing it around the country from a centralised base and selling it on at “value added” prices at garages is this “inspired by”? Oh. The idea of farmers’ markets! The notion of farmers’ markets! The general feeling of farmers’ markets! In actual fact, it’s inspired by the two words that make up the phrase “farmers’ markets”: farmers and markets. Sorry, I was being thick.

Shell is one of the largest oil companies in the world, with revenues in the hundreds of billions of dollars. I sometimes buy petrol from them. But I don’t take kindly to being treated like an idiot by their marketeers and corporate strategists. Shell and farmers’ markets are polar opposites in terms of what they do. How dare Shell claim to be inspired by markets? Inspired by the market, certainly. But not markets. I’ve been to a farmers’ market: it was some vans and trestle tables in a school playground on a Saturday morning with meat and cakes and vegetables for sale, in exchange for cash. The vans might run on Shell petrol but that’s where the connection ends.

I think we live in a deeply sad world. A world where an oil company might seriously believe that it can sell more oil by pretending its fast food is in some way taking us back to nature. Corporations run our world, not governments – corporations to which I regularly give money, so don’t get any funny ideas that I think I am above it all. But it’s as well to see the danger. Corporations care about one thing and one thing only: the bottom line. This is why they are corporations and not governments or charities. They will do and say anything in order to take more money off us, even a single penny. (I loved it on Episode 3 of The Apprentice when one of the idiots complained that a gentlemen’s outfitters wouldn’t even take “one penny” off the retail price of a top hat. “Not even a penny – I mean how greedy can you get?” This is not a woman who understands capitalism and yet capitalism is her career choice.)

I have just read a typically fascinating and rigorous article by John Seabrook in the New Yorker (which I’d provide a link for, except that you have to be a subscriber to read their articles in full – non-subscribers can read a precis here), about PepsiCo, the largest food-and-beverage producer in the United States, and the second largest in the world after Nestlé. If PepsiCo were a country, its GDP would place it 66th in the world, between Ecuador and Croatia. It is not a country, it is a company. It rules the roost thanks to Pepsi, Tropicana, Gatorade, Fritos and Lay’s (which are crisps) and other “bad for you” snack brands. Actually, they don’t class them as “bad for you” at PepsiCo, they are “fun for you.” But the big drive there, at the Mecca of Snack, is to render their famous branded products as “good for you.” How? By reducing the salt and sugar content, mainly, but also by reintroducing things like antioxidants and vitamins into products where such inconveniences have been processed out in the process of processing them into other things. Why are they doing this? Because they care about America’s obesity epidemic, and obesity epidemics further afield? No, because they care about the bottom line. And as people become increasingly aware of the link between eating snack food and drinking sweet drinks and getting fatter, they look to healthier options. In the piece, we learn that PepsiCo’s share of the useless food market is down – in 2010, sales of Pepsi cola were down 4.8%, and overall carbonated drinks were down 2.6%. One way to reverse this trend, the brains at boardroom level seem to think, is make people who eat unhealthy food think that it is healthy.

It’s a fascinating inside look at the way a massive corporation thinks, from the CEO – Indra Nooyi – down. Surprise, surprise, there’s a lot of jargon about food and drinks being “scientifically advantaged” (the Flora ProActiv revolution in action), and we discover that the PepsiCo HQ screensaver bears the phrase, “performance with purpose”, a brilliant way of rewriting the phrase, “profit with more profit.” On top of all this guff, Nooyi herself, while overseeing a taste test, says with a straight face that the next phase for PepsiCo is to “snackify” drinks, and “drinkify” snacks. It would be laughable were it not so deadly serious. Basically, the biggest food-and-beverage producer in America, whose $60 billion revenue in 2010 was largely supported by selling crisps and fizzy drinks, expects us to believe it when it tells us that it wishes to “re-educate” us. No it doesn’t. The only reason any corporation selling snacks and soda wants us to stay alive is so that we buy more snacks and soda. In an ideal world, it would keep us all on life-support systems so that we can at least still eat Fritos and drink Pepsi via tubes. It wants us alive, but only just.

This is fair enough. Why should any corporation care about obesity or health? Why should any corporation care about fair trade or farmers? It’s a corporation. It exists only to make money, and if it takes a penny off a top hat, it loses a penny that it would much prefer not to lose. Which is why it irritates me when a corporation, be it Pepsi or Shell, pretends it’s doing some good to the world. Pepsi doesn’t want its food to be “good for you,” it wants its food to appear better for you if it thinks you’re more likely to buy it if that’s the way it appears. If you, or I, fall for this, then more fool us. (And we do. We do.) Shell is not inspired by farmers’ markets; it wants to appear to be inspired by them if it thinks you’re more likely to buy their petrol if that’s the way it appears to you.

Mind you, £3.99 for a sandwich, crisps and Coke? More Coke! More Snickers! I love these products! I wish they sold them at the farmers’ market.