Qibla - the new cola kid on the block - has truly global ambitions, but can the brand extend beyond a Muslim following? Phil Mellows reports.
Remember that telly ad for Coca-Cola which stuck a bunch of people of all races and creeds swaying in a field and singing "I'd like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony..."? It's a lofty aspiration to which Coke no doubt still subscribes. But the real world has a nasty habit of pulling your ideals out from under your feet.
Thirty years later the world is far from harmonious, and there are some people out there who blame Coca-Cola - not to mention Pepsi Cola - for this sorry state of affairs.
In recent months, especially during the build-up to the war on Iraq, the internet has bristled with news of Coke and Pepsi boycotts in the Middle East and beyond.
The demand for an alternative first prompted the launch of a "Muslim" cola in Iran, and at the back end of last year a French entrepreneur by the name of Tawfik Mathlouthi introduced Mecca-Cola to the West.
Then along came Qibla-Cola, born in Derby.
The launch press conference a couple of weeks ago was held in Spitalfields near Brick Lane, the heart of the London Bangladeshi community.
Around here the kids are already drinking Mecca-Cola but for the sharply-suited business people behind Qibla, Mecca is far too modest in its ambitions. Quibla's aim is to take on the might of Coke and Pepsi on a global scale.
At the moment, however, there is a hitch. Qibla has only managed to get one British bottler to take the brand on and supplies, so far confined to Muslim communities in the Midlands and the North, quickly dry up.
But bottling contracts have been signed in Germany and Spain and once the cola - along with the rest of Qibla's soft drinks portfolio - starts flowing, the company's priority is to get the brand into supermarkets and cash and carries.
This is significant for pubs. Islam, of course, forbids its adherents to drink alcohol. But according to an insider, while Qibla will not market directly to pubs, one interpretation of the Koran suggests that once it has sold drinks into a cash and carry it has no rights over what happens to them after that.
So pubs will be able to source Qibla-Cola easily enough.
But will licensees choose to stock it?
Muslims are, presumably, not great pub-goers. But Qibla believes its appeal extends beyond the religion's 1.6 billion followers worldwide - 1.8 million of them in Britain.
According to former accountant Zafer Iqbal, Qibla's co-founder and chief executive officer, we are in a time when "increasingly consumers are realising there is more behind the products we buy".
The company is not anti-American, he insists, but "anti an American administration with an I'm-all-right-Jack attitude".
"The large cola brands are intertwined with their government's foreign policy."
This means there is an opportunity for people to "use non-violent means to express their opinion" by not buying Coke or Pepsi. "They are voting with their wallets. And it isn't just in the Third World."
Zafer points to research that indicates that two-thirds of the UK population believes that "the world is becoming too Americanised".
"Our market is everyone who has a conscience," he said. "It's not just Muslims who have ethics. Anyone can recognise these issues."
Anyone who drinks Qibla, he believes, is making their own statement. As the words on a natty bit of merchandise, an unsharpened pencil, has it, "We leave it to you to make the point".
"It is a conscious purchase decision of someone who wants to stand up against injustice, oppression and exploitation," said Zafer.
Qibla aims to achieve this by not simply being not Coke or Pepsi but by contributing 10 per cent of its profits - when it has some - to charity, the first beneficiary being Islamic Aid.
He also makes a point that the company will not have bottling plants in "disputed territories", a reference to Coca-Cola's presence in occupied Palestine, the source of a long-term boycott campaign.
For its part, Coca-Cola considers its bottling plant to be a positive. It not only directly employs 200 inhabitants of Gaza and the West Bank but runs community programs in the Palestinian Authority that includes sponsorship of the national football team and schools initiatives.
It appears, in fact, to be proud of its international involvements. In a tone that echoes that old advert, it says: "Our business refreshes people around the world. The Coca-Cola Company does not support or oppose governments, political or religious causes and does not take a stance on issues that do not directly affect the soft drinks industry.
"We cannot and do not take the side of one country over another or one party over another in any dispute. Any allegation or claim to the contrary is completely false."
It will not be drawn on whether the boycott campaigns have hit sales, however.
Sue Garfitt, director of category planning at Pepsi-Cola's UK distributor Britvic, is unaware of any bad feeling towards the brand in this country. "There was no suggestion at any time that there was a consumer boycott against the Pepsi brand," she said.
"In fact, figures from AC Nielsen show that during the past six months Pepsi sales have risen by 3.5 per cent in terms of value."
On the question of Muslim colas, she concedes that "there may well be a niche market for this sort of product. However, consumers are increasingly turning to mainstream cola brands."
They might turn to Qibla by mistake though. The branding bears a deliberate resemblance to the world's biggest cola brand. "We are not trying to pass it off," said Zafer. "But we do want people to do a double-take."
Pictured: Qibla-Cola founders Zahida Parveen and Zafer Iqbal are aiming to take on the might of American giants Pepsi and Coca-Cola.
As well as launching Qibla-Cola, Qibla has in its portfolio:
- Qibla Spring Water - "an invigorating alternative to a decadent and inactive existence"
- Qibla Fantasy - a sparkling drink in orange and mango flavours, "for those exercising their intellects in leading the crowd, rather than following it"
- Qibla 5 - sparkling lemon and lime, named after the five pillars of Islam.
For more information go to www.qibla-cola.com