Message in a bottle

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Andrew Jefford says a very clear lessonshould be learned from the Dasani debacle Okay, Mum, you're right, I know: one shouldn't gloat at the...

Andrew Jefford says a very clear lessonshould be learned from the Dasani debacle Okay, Mum, you're right, I know: one shouldn't gloat at the misfortune of others. Yet when the "other" in question is the largest soft-drinks company in the world, and when the reason for its bright red face is greed, and when the details of the case make it plain that the company assumed that we British were a dim-witted and easily hoodwinked bunch, it's hard to deny oneself at least a small smile of satisfaction. As PR catastrophes go, this promises to be one of the all-time greats. Coca-Cola, as I'm sure most readers will know well enough by now, decided that it needed a water "brand" in the UK. Mineral water and spring water is seen as healthy, drunk by fitness fanatics and slim blonde models; sweet brown Coca-Cola, by contrast, is perceived to be the choice of couch potatoes and the dentally doomed. Enter, therefore, something called Dasani. Dasani, it appears, is little more than a name and a piece of packaging. When the time came for a European launch, the British bottles were to be filled with treated tap water from Sidcup, whereas the French were going to get genuine mineral water in their bottles. The Brits, in other words, were a bunch of thickos who didn't have the brain power to realise that something described as "pure, still water" was not (as they probably assumed) either spring water or mineral water; the savvy French, of course, would know the difference. There aren't many lines of business that could accurately be described as a licence to print money, but bottling tap water and selling it at the same price as mineral water must surely qualify. Cynical journalists have their uses, and drawing attention to the fact that Dasani was, in fact, "Sidcup Spring" is one of them. I was listening to a BBC World Service news programme on 2 March, and heard the invited guest (a wine PR executive called David Lindsay) correctly identify Dasani from three water samples, based on its unpleasant, chemical taste. Coca-Cola really doesn't want to know how many millions of listeners the World Service has. Domestic current affairs programmes and newspapers gleefully covered the story, too. Even then, Coca-Cola might still have got away with it. Consumers don't necessarily "consume" news programmes and newspapers. I am the proud owner of a bottle of Dasani (destined to become a collector's item) purchased by my partner, who bought it in a hurry because that was what she found on the shelf in the shop, rather than Evian, Volvic or Vittel. She had no idea at all that it was not spring or mineral water, or that it was a Coca-Cola product, or that it came out of a tap in Sidcup. At that point, though, matters went from bad to worse for the hapless American giant. Anybody consulting the back label would have learned that Dasani was made not by 650 million years of geological felicity but by "a state-of-the-art reverse-osmosis process that precisely delivers pure still water". Sure enough, a mineralogical analysis was provided, and those with a PhD in label-reading could detect that Coke had actually added calcium chloride, magnesium sulphate and sodium bicarbonate to the tap water. Unfortunately, for the Atlanta boardroom and chief executive Douglas Daft, they had also added 25 parts per billion of bromate, when the legal limit as policed by the Food Standards Agency was 10. Dasani had to be recalled, to Atlanta's shame. The Financial Times splashed its Saturday 20 March front page with a picture of a bottle being poured down the drain. Just the thing to encourage shareholders. Now even the French and German launches are on hold, and Dasani is a laughing stock. Behind the fun and hubris, though, there are some serious issues to address. First of all, the notion that all bottled water is either mineral water (which has to come from an underground source) or spring water (which has to come from an underground or overground source, but not mains water) is false ­ yet few consumers realise it. If I was a genuine producer of mineral or spring water, I would be agitating loudly for a generic PR campaign to teach consumers the difference between these products and bottled "table water" or "purified water" ­ which will come out of a tap. Secondly, it shows just how corrupt the notion of the brand has become. Coca-Cola's behaviour proves that large, global companies will behave with absolute ruthlessness when it comes to maximising profits; they were entirely unconcerned that "Dasani" was tap water in Britain but genuine mineral water in France, and that the product therefore had no international authenticity whatsoever. They are not alone. Diageo tried a similar trick when it turned Cardhu from a "single malt" into a "pure malt" for the Spanish market overnight ­ though it was a dangerous move to attempt in the rarified stratosphere of malt whisky consumption, and the backlash has led the company to reverse the decision. Gallo's Garnet Point is another meaningless brand name: the wine sold under that label comes from both Australia and California, and there is nothing to stop it coming from Uruguay one day. Brewers, of course, are masters of the same trade; licence-brewing means a brand is just a name, guaranteeing no sort of consistency of aroma, flavour, ingredients, water source or brewing techniques at all. Consumers may take a long time to work these things out, but once their trust in a product has gone they can be very unforgiving. The lesson of Dasani is clear. Packaging and marketing alone are not enough; quality and authenticity ­ unwelcome though this may be to global brand-builders ­ matter too.

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