Understanding Marketing Responses to a Tax on Sugary Drinks: A Qualitative Interview Study in the United Kingdom, 2019

Document Type : Original Article


1 MRC Epidemiology Unit, University of Cambridge School of Clinical Medicine, Institute of Metabolic Science, Cambridge, UK

2 Global Food Systems and Policy Research, School of Global Health, Faculty of Health, York University, Toronto, ON, Canada

3 The Faculty of Health and Social Care, University of Chester, Chester, UK

4 Public Health England, London, UK

5 Department of Primary Care and Public Health, School of Public Health, Imperial College London, London, UK

6 National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, London, UK


The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that countries implement fiscal policies to reduce the health impacts of sugary drinks. Few studies have fully examined the responses of industry to these policies, and whether they support or undermine health benefits of sugary drinks taxes. We aimed to explore the changes that sugary drinks companies may make to their marketing, and underlying decision-making processes, in response to such a tax.

Following introduction of the UK Soft Drinks Industry Levy (SDIL) in 2018, we undertook one-to-one semi-structured interviews with UK stakeholders with experience of the strategic decision-making or marketing of soft drinks companies. We purposively recruited interviewees using seed and snowball sampling. We conducted telephone interviews with 6 representatives from each of industry, academia and civil society (total n=18), which were transcribed verbatim and thematically analysed. Four transcripts were double-coded, three were excluded from initial coding to allow comparison; and findings were checked by interviewees.

Themes were organised into a theoretical framework that reveals a cyclical, iterative and ongoing process of soft drinks company marketing decision-making, which was accelerated by the SDIL. Decisions about marketing affect a product’s position, or niche, in the market and were primarily intended to maintain profits. A product’s position is enacted through various marketing activities including reformulation and price variation, and non-marketing activities like lobbying. A soft drinks company’s selection of marketing activities appeared to be influenced by their internal context, such as brand strength, and external context, such as consumer trends and policy. For example, a company with low brand strength and an awareness of trends for reducing sugar consumption may be more likely to reformulate to lower-sugar alternatives.

The theoretical framework suggests that marketing responses following the SDIL were coordinated and context-dependent, potentially explaining observed heterogeneity in responses across the industry.



Commentaries Published on this Paper


  •  Additional Marketing Responses to a Tax on Sugar-Sweetened Beverages; Comment on “Understanding Marketing Responses to a Tax on Sugary Drinks: A Qualitative Interview Study in the United Kingdom, 2019”

        Abstract | PDF


  • Framing Marketing Responses to National Regulation: The Four Ps in Transnational Corporate Political Discourse; Comment on “Understanding Marketing Responses to a Tax on Sugary Drinks: A Qualitative Interview Study in the United Kingdom, 2019”

        Abstract | PDF


  • Companies’ Responses to a Tax on Sugar-Sweetened Beverages: Implications for Research; Comment on “Understanding Marketing Responses to a Tax on Sugary Drinks: A Qualitative Interview Study in the United Kingdom, 2019”

        Abstract | PDF


  • Corporate Harm Minimisation: Promises and Perils; Comment on “Understanding Marketing Responses to a Tax on Sugary Drinks: A Qualitative Interview Study in the United Kingdom, 2019”

        Abstract | PDF


  •  Policy vs Business: Well-Designed Health-Related Food Policy Should Not Let Industry Marketing Undermine its Intended Effects; Comment on “Understanding Marketing Responses to a Tax on Sugary Drinks: A Qualitative Interview Study in the United Kingdom, 2019”

        Abstract | PDF


  • The Instrumental Role of Strategic Communication to Counter Industry Marketing Responses to Sugary Drink Taxes; Comment on “Understanding Marketing Responses to a Tax on Sugary Drinks: A Qualitative Interview Study in the United Kingdom, 2019”

        Abstract | PDF


  • Contextual Factors That May Impact on the Development and Implementation of the Sugary Drinks Policy; Comment on “Understanding Marketing Responses to a Tax on Sugary Drinks: A Qualitative Interview Study in the United Kingdom, 2019”

        Abstract | PDF


  • Should We Worry About Spillover Effects of Sugar Sweetened Beverage Taxation Policies?; Comment on “Understanding Marketing Responses to a Tax on Sugary Drinks: A Qualitative Interview Study in the United Kingdom, 2019”

        Abstract | PDF


  • Marketing Responses to the Taxation of Soft Drinks; Comment on “Understanding Marketing Responses to a Tax on Sugary Drinks: A Qualitative Interview Study in the United Kingdom, 2019”

        Abstract | PDF



  • epublished Author Accepted Version: January 29, 2022
  • epublished Final Version: February 23, 2022
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Volume 11, Issue 11
November 2022
Pages 2618-2629
  • Receive Date: 18 September 2020
  • Revise Date: 30 September 2021
  • Accept Date: 27 January 2022
  • First Publish Date: 29 January 2022