Report on Women in the Beverage Sector

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by Amy-Willard Cross

The most famous woman in the beverage business, PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi, is well-known for her public statements decrying the possibility of "having it all." Despite that, Nooyi is called the third most powerful woman in American business - and is certainly one of the most visible.

"You know, stay-at-home mothering was a full-time job. Being a CEO for a company is three full-time jobs rolled into one. How can you do justice to all? You can't," she said at a conference last year. As one of only two female CEOs of the 14 beverage companies surveyed (the other is Jennifer Cue of Jones Soda, an operation based out of Seattle with a market cap of $15 million), Nooyi, running the second-largest food and beverage company in the world, is in a position to influence the industry as a whole - influence that it could use.

With few exceptions, the beverage industry at large is not very public about promoting and retaining women. Certainly, it's hard to retain women until they reach leadership age if they leave during the childbearing years. Of the 14 companies, only three publicly disclosed that they offered paid maternity leave, and only Kraft, Nestlé, and Unilever provided any more details. Indeed, Nestlé made big news this year announcing its ground-breaking global family policies that grant 14 paid weeks leave to any parent or for adoptions. Those employees are also able to take an additional six months off.

The industry's lack of high-profile women, suggests Mike Weinstein, former CEO of Snapple and chairman of Inov8 Beverage Company, could stem from the fact that beverage bottling was traditionally a male-dominated, blue-collar job.

PepsiCo offers adoption assistance and help with child and elder care, but the details of its support programs are unclear. Meanwhile, in 2007, soda rival The Coca Cola Company launched a Women's Leadership Council, dedicated to recruiting and developing a pipeline of female leaders. The Council later promoted variable work hours throughout the company, recognizing that without flexible working arrangements, it will be a challenge to retain its female talent. Unilever has also started an agile work force, which means working "anywhere, anytime."

The beverage industry fares better with board membership: only two companies lack any women on their board, and all but three have proportions that top the Fortune 500 average of 16 percent. Unilever, Dr. Pepper, and Campbell Soup Company lead the pack, with 33 to 36 percent apiece. While you may see a few women on the boards of beverage companies, the numbers of women in the executive suite are often much less: six of these companies had fewer than the Fortune 500 Average. Indeed, four had no women among the top highest paid executives.

As for women managers, Kraft, Unilever and Starbucks percentages all exceed the average of 40 percent. However, the recent merger of Kraft and Heinz significantly decreased the number of women in executive positions, and it remains to be seen how the conglomerate's shift in management will impact the brand's woman-friendliness.

"Any company with half a brain in 2014 is thinking about women and minorities," said Weinstein. "I guarantee you, every single one of them has metrics in the human resources department. Everyone would like to have more women and more minorities, but there's a limited force out there, so the good people get bid up."

CONSUMERS

When it comes to doing good, the big beverage companies are acting globally. Some, notably The Coca Cola Company, have made women the rpiece of their corporate social responsibility. Coca Cola's 5by20 initiative aims to empower five million women "across the value chain," from farmers to suppliers to retailers. Unilever has partnered with the World Food Program to fund Project Laser Beam, which helps women farmers have access to seeds, fertilizer, and loan credits. Nestlé helps female farmers access markets in India and Morocco and assists women entrepreneurs in starting and operating their own businesses, including Nescafé street carts, across Africa and the Caribbean, and in Brazil and Thailand. The company contributed $10 million in 2013 to UN-affiliated Every Woman Every Child, which funded·17 women's economic empowerment programs in 20 countries. Starbucks's Teavana Chai has raised $5 million, some of which goes to Girls, Inc. Campbell Soup Company has an innovative program, Camp Campbell, which has eight chapters and connects young change-making women outside their company with powerful women within, including the CEO.

Back at home, beverage companies have typically approached women with diet products on the assumption that "women are watching their weight and guys have beer bellies," as Weinstein put it. "There's been a lot of research that if you put the word 'diet' on a product, it skews female."

So much so that when Dr. Pepper released its low-calorie "Ten" soda, it had to warn the ladies explicitly to stay away. During televised sporting events, it ran an ad combining every cliché of machismo, which culminated with the admonition, "It's not for women." According to Weinstein, historically, soda drinkers are 55 percent male, although women purchase about 60 percent of beverages for households.

That's just one of the beverage industry’s many missteps with consumers, which largely center around ill-conceived or misleading marketing efforts. In 2011, Jones Soda Co. launched an ad featuring a golliwog and a coolie.

When it comes to advertising, the more established food brands tend to stick to neutral depictions of women and family. Folgers stands out for its imagery of care-taking dads and husbands who make breakfast. Ads for coffee and tea are quite harmless and only need show a hand holding a cup to remind viewers of the pleasure inside. But Dr. Pepper ads objectify men on one hand, then depict stereotype-busting women boxer and roller derby-ists on the other. Likewise, Mountain Dew has been faulted for violent ads in the past, whereas the affiliated Gatorade brand promotes girl athletes. Even as one of the newer companies in the sector, Starbucks shows women in many different positive variations: a mom being her own mechanic, a woman solo camping, or girls skateboarding.

Marketing can be a weak spot: V8's fruit juice beverages, owned by Campbell Soup Company, have come under fire from consumer groups for their deceptive labels, which bill the sugary drinks as healthy and antioxidant-laden. Yet, beverage companies are coming under fire for health and environmental reasons. Bottled water companies have come under fire for millions of discarded plastic bottles and profiting from public-owned supplies of water. Many of the industry are also embattled by the anti-GMO movement and fight back with expensive lobbying campaigns, which put them in some consumers' bad books.

As more and more consumers move away from sugary drinks, some successful woman-owned companies, such as Dry Soda and Hint Water, are stepping in to serve up something healthier. Rest assured, their leadership scores are high.

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An earlier version of this story can be seen on VITAMIN W.

image by Michael Comeau via flickr under a creative commons license.