Marketing: A Tale of Power and Responsibility

For a long time, I was convinced that I couldn’t drink coffee without half and half. But eventually, after hearing over and over again the health benefits of cutting out dairy, I finally gave it a shot, and I eventually switched to drinking coconut milk almost exclusively.

One day as I ordered a cappuccino with coconut milk from Starbucks, I decided to check the nutrition information. I was genuinely surprised, especially when I compared it to the same cappuccino with skim milk. Now I check everything.

This experience inspired me to take a fresh look into all of the milk alternatives, a category that is growing at a rapid pace. Today the average American drinks 18 gallons of milk a year, but back in the 1970s it was 30. Like me, many have made the switch from dairy to dairy alternatives, but are they really better for you? And does it really matter as long as you think they are?

Consumers started avoiding animal-derived milk due to allergies like lactose intolerance and then for other health concerns, like possible increases in the risk of certain cancers and diabetes, and finally because of ethical issues regarding the use of animals. People are moving away from milk in an attempt to include more plant-based protein, which is definitely a worthy goal. But similar to what happened when we started to move to low-fat foods, sometimes this means trading off for more sugar and other undesirable ingredients.

Here’s a comparison:

  • Soy milk contains about the same amount of protein as dairy milk
  • Rice milk is good for people with allergies, but has twice as many carbs and hardly any protein
  • Oat milk only has 2g of protein
  • Almonds’ good properties don’t wind up in almond milk because of the milling and processing it takes to make it
  • Coconut milk is high in saturated fat content and has very little protein

But are alternative milk drinkers actually avoiding all animal-based protein in their diets? The answer is no. Many people who choose dairy alternatives also enjoy animal-based proteins in other parts of their diet, so if it’s not all about health, what’s the deal? Really it’s all about marketing…

Marketing can make you do anything. Studies have shown that even when you think you are tuning out marketing messages, you’re not. You probably think of a product positively if you see it next to other things that make you feel good. These associations are called affective conditioning- the transfer of our feelings from one set of items to another. When you see happy kids drinking almond milk, you might feel positively about almond milk, even if you thought you were tuning out the ad.

Milk drinking has always been about habit and marketing. Before, it was drink your cow’s milk to get lots of calcium and build strong bones. Today, milk alternatives are capitalizing on other hopes and dreams and fears.

This industry is a good reminder of the tremendous power and responsibility of marketing. And that it requires active work on behalf of the brand and the industry to stay relevant to America’s consumers. And active work on the part of consumers, to really understand what we are putting in our bodies.

It’s tricky, but I can help. Let’s talk.

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