Soft Drinks Remain Beloved

October 20/Atlanta/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution -- In good economies and bad, Americans love their soft drinks.

That is the message from a closely watched survey of 1,000 soft drink shoppers conducted recently by Michigan-based American Customer Satisfaction Index. Soft drinks are one of the best-liked industries out of dozens covered by the national survey.

Pepsi dropped two points to 84 on a 100-point scale, placing it in a tie with Atlanta-based Coca-Cola Co. Dr Pepper Snapple claimed the top spot with an 85. The survey, conducted in June and July, asked questions about value for money, a topic increasingly relevant to purchases.

"Anytime we're in a state of a weakened economy, people are skittish about their spending," said David VanAmburg, managing director at ACSI, based in Ann Arbor, Mich. "In a down economy, [consumers] say, 'Quality is nice, but I need to get a good value for my money.'"

Because soft drinks are so affordable, it is easy to switch brands if one desires. That makes the industry a case study in competitiveness and one of the perennial winners out of about 45 industries covered by ACSI, VanAmburg said. This year, the industry average score was 84 out of a possible 100. Only the electronics industry, with offerings such as flat-screen TVs and computers, scored higher with an 85. Airlines, by contrast, scored in the mid-60s.

Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Dr Pepper "have to bend over backward to please their customers, because the switching cost is basically zero," VanAmburg said. "This industry, it's not at all surprising, would have very, very high customer satisfaction."

Coca-Cola's score has held basically steady for four years. Dr Pepper has consistently ranked a point or two higher than its larger competitors in that span, possibly reflecting greater enthusiasm and loyalty among fans of the smaller brand, VanAmburg said.

"This is an industry where for the most part, there's not a lot of separation," said VanAmburg.

"People who love Pepsi love Pepsi. People who love Coke love Coke. These companies know how to make their soft drinks. It's really just about preference."

From the November 1, 2010, Prepared Foods E-dition