Folks, you might know that fancy beverage called bubble tea. Last summer, it became hugely popular in Germany. Sales skyrocketed during the hot months. Retailers across the country sprang up like mushrooms. There was no pedestrian zone downtown that did not feature the most trendy drink of the year. Companies like BoboQ introduced this stylish product which is known since long in Asian countries like Taiwan. The outstanding feature of bubble tea is its little corn starch or Tapioca pearls, that tastily burst in the mouth while drinking it with sweetened green or black tea, milk or syrup. Only the English upper class believes that Earl Grey is best left as it is, bubble tea introduced a much more hip approach to consume tea in the 21st century.
But the party didn’t last very long. On the 22nd of August, a regional newspaper in Germany, the Rheinische Post, featured an article that reported on poisonous ingredients in bubble tea. Citing a study conducted by the RWTH Aachen University, the newspaper claimed that some ingredients like styrol and acetophenone are suspected to cause cancer and allergies. One of the studies’ leading researchers was quoted saying, that there is a lot of dirt in bubble tea.
“A lot of dirt.” Strong stuff.
Only one day later, major papers such as the Süddeutsche Zeitung or Tagesspiegel picked up the story. That meant nationwide coverage. Even a petition to the German Bundestag, demanding to ban bubble tea, was filed on the 22nd of September.
Ten years ago, Coca Cola was confronted with similar allegations by an NGO, claiming that the company’s beverages contain pesticides that could cause cancer.
Following the accusations, sales dropped by 30 to 40% within only two weeks, as a case study conducted by the Tuck School of Business at Darthmouth College, found out in 2005. Coca Cola is a drastic example showing the consequences, may they be true or not, of public accusations. Check this out: http://www.awpagesociety.com/insights/winning-case-studies/2005/
It took Coca Cola some effort to restore consumers confidence in India. But while the Coke case in India displayed by and large the problem of environmental regulations in an emerging economy, the same cannot be said about bubble tea. The point of the story was a different one. Whereas the allegations towards bubble tea circulated in the public, the initial study never did. It never was made public. The German ministry for consumer protection stated already on the 23rd of August 2012, that their demand for detailed results remained unanswered. Throughout the whole affair, the accusations remained unproven. Die Zeit, a German weekly, reports that until today no press release or scientific study whatsoever was published. In fact, the reason why that story developed the way it did remains a mystery.
But the milk was already spilt. Other sceptics joined the debate. They warned us that the bubbles could pose a serious threat to infants when swallowed. The image of bubble tea changed from hip to highly controversial and consumers acted accordingly. The tea rush was over before it really began. Many shops closed a few weeks after opening. McDonald’s jumped off the bandwagon after entering the market very quickly earlier in 2012. And retailers such as BoboQ battled for consumer confidence, largely without effect. Independent research institutes such as SGS Fresenius certified bubble tea to be harmless. No toxic compounds. But customers hardly noticed the results, although they were often posted at shop fronts. The rumour was out there. The unproven allegation became an urban legend, and one the consumers conveniently believed in.
But what is the lesson to learn? Well, firstly we realise how powerful consumer fear is and how easy it is to capitalise on it by means of public communication. Nobody wants to eat or drink poison; at least not until we know that it is poison. The toxicity of cigarettes and alcoholic drinks do not prevent people from consuming them. And does it really make a difference if you feed yourself with vast quantities of sugar by drinking soft drinks (as bubble tea)? Apparently, it does. Chemical terms like styrol or acetophenone invoke fear. While we connect sugar mentally with the happy images of our first birthday cake, styrol is connoted with eating a piece of floor lining in a chemistry lab. Funny though, that consumers hardly ever take a look on the ingredients of frozen pizza, canned meat or plastic packed salads. Or how do ingredients like Amaranth (E 123 – banned even in Russia, a country not known for banning stuff), Propylenglycol (E 1520) or Inosinat (E 630) sound to you?
Secondly, we must acknowledge that guys in a white lab coat still carry some weight. A study featured by researchers at a university impresses the public. Especially when you drop the right words that link in with consumers hopes and fears. Actually, the same effect applies in reverse for coffee drinkers, since they can now believe that coffee has positive effects on their health.
Poison, dirt, cancer – these buzz words sound credible with some wacked-out product like bubble tea. Just let a trustworthy looking guy drop them. But of course, the guy in the white coat is only a one way ticket. Once the train is rolling, the best study whatsoever will not help you to stop people from jumping off the bandwagon.
Thirdly, rumours are highly persistent. They link in with something we believe (or want to believe) to be true. And since Chinese toys are in our mind poisoned with plumb (Mattel) and milk powder with melanin, it is only a small step to assume that bubbles, made somewhere in Asia, cause cancer. Once the rumour spreads, you can apply communication of any kind: displaying facts, make your product transparent – it won’t work. Or at least it won’t work quickly. Urban legends immunize themselves by the fact of their existence. When people start whispering “I heard that too. There must be something true about it!”, the best communication strategy will fail. To counter alleged facts will just prove to those who already doubt that there must be some truth to the accusation.
Finally, we can see that poisoned products are just on the surface of the issue. Consuming nowadays has become a statement, a way of life. Eating burgers oozing with fat displays an attitude: if you wanna run cool you gotta run on heavy heavy fuel (check the Dire Straits-video on the subject). Drinking liquid sugar masked as beverage, lighting up a cigarette could make you a fighter against perceived health terrorists, that try to regulate even the way you live. Connecting consumption to the bigger issues of life, e.g. freedom, makes health taking a back seat in the public debate. But what do bubbles stand for? They are drolly, fancy, maybe even tasty, but definitely not worth dying for. Dying because of lung cancer could be an act of heroism to defend the Western way of life, it surely is a decision. Dying of cancer caused by tiny bubbles is a silly way to die. So do not bother for bubble tea – the next bandwagon is sure to come!