Americans are paying closer attention to what they put into their bodies and increasingly opting for healthier options, much to the dismay of soda marketers. According to a Beverage Digest report, U.S. soda sales have been continuously dropping since 2004. Given this change in appetite for sugar, if soda brands want to survive, they will have to find a way to resonate with consumers and show them how soda can fit into their healthy lifestyles.  Something healthy food marketing has already been doing.

Backlash against soda marketing has added fuel to the anti-soda fire. Campaigns like CSPI’s spoof of Coca Cola’s famous “Hilltop” ad have gone viral, warning of the negative health effects of soda—diabetes and obesity to name a couple—casting soda companies as the villains.

With consumers steering clear of both diet and regular soda and on such high alert for unhealthy ingredients, there may be a slight product issue. Without changing the product itself, how can soda brands successfully market a product that is so overwhelmingly, and perhaps irreversibly, perceived as unhealthy?

Decisions like that of McDonald’s to remove sodas from the Happy Meal section of their menu make matters worse for the industry. As a result, fewer people are picking soda for Happy Meals, according to a report by the McDonald’s Corp. and the Alliance for a Healthier Generation. The report said 48% of Happy Meal orders included soda, which is down from 56% (a victory in our healthy food marketing book).

As Americans grow more conscious of the ingredients in their foods and beverages, many have chosen to avoid artificial zero-calorie sweeteners, like aspartame, ruling out diet soda as an alternative to regular soda. Beverage Marketing predicts the amount of bottled water consumed could soon surpass soda, America’s long-time favorite.

If soda brands want to avoid this fate, they will need to think carefully about their messaging. Here are a couple of tips:

  1. Make it a treat. Focus messaging on enjoying soda in moderation by emphasizing responsible servings and not over-consuming. Point out that a smaller serving of soda can be a great way to treat yourself.
  2. Don’t ignore the reality. There is no denying that drinking too much soda contributes to serious health problems—diabetes and obesity are real. Soda brands must openly acknowledge that consumers’ concerns are valid. Any brand position that aims to weave around this truth is not viable, and consumers won’t buy it. The old “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” will not work here.

So are these the last of soda’s days? Not likely. Soda is still by far the largest non-alcoholic beverage category, in terms of dollars. The sky is not falling yet.

Clearly, there is still a huge market for soda and diet soda. However, if consumers see your brand as irresponsibly selling soda as a healthy option that actually harms their health for monetary gain, expect to be called out and expect it to be ugly.

Soda brands must be authentic and realistic in their messaging so consumers can feel comfortable and safe choosing soda as an occasional indulgence.  Welcome to healthy food marketing.