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Storytelling In The News: #95

Stories spoil Dasani launch for Coke in the UK

March 21, 2004

According to the Coca-Cola Bottling Company, Dasani is its answer to health complaints about its sugar-rich caffeine-laced drinks. Dasani is promoted as pure water, cleansed by a "highly sophisticated purification process... based on Nasa spacecraft technology". Coca-Cola sells more than 200 million cases of Dasani annually around the world. Dasani is currently being launched in the UK with a £7m marketing push. While things are supposed to go better with Coke, things in the UK are going from bad to worse with Dasani.

Stories emerge about Dasani

First, the story emerged that the water used in Dasani in the UK came from ordinary tap water, piped into its factory by Thames Water, leading to widespread derision of the product.

Then this story was compounded by news that the firm's "highly sophisticated purification process", allegedly based on some super-sophisticated spacecraft technology, was in fact no more than reverse osmosis used in many modest domestic water purification units.

Then on Friday, the story took an even worse turn: it emerged: that the entire UK supply of Dasani was being pulled off the shelves because it has been contaminated with bromate, a cancer-causing chemical.

According to The Guardian, the whole story of what Coke does goes something like this:

* take Thames Water from the tap in your factory in Sidcup, Kent;
* put it through a purification process,
* call it "pure"
* give it a mark-up from 0.03p to 95p per half litre;
* in the process, add a batch of calcium chloride, containing bromide, for "taste profile";
* then pump ozone through it, oxidising the bromide - which is not a problem - into bromate - which is.
* finally, dispatch to the shops bottles of water containing up to twice the legal limit for bromate (10 micrograms per litre)."

The Drinking Water Inspectorate confirmed yesterday it had checked the water supplied to the factory by Thames Water and found it free of bromate. In other words, Dasani is less healthy than regular tap water, but at more than thirty times the price.

Bromide is a naturally occurring trace chemical which has a sedative effect. It is said to have been added by the British army to soldiers' tea during the second world war to dampen down their lust. But when it is oxidised into bromate it becomes "a pretty nasty carcinogen", according to David Drury, one of the principal inspectors for the DWI.

The bromate problem is a consequence of added ingredients supplied by Coca-Cola in the same way that it supplies syrupy concentrate to bottlers for them to make cola.

Impact of the story

Coca-Cola Enterprises said optimistically that the recall would not affect its balance sheet. The company said it had already tested its Dasani water in North America and found "no issue at all" concerning bromate. It said this incident should not hurt the Dasani water brand as "consumers will understand the facts that this is an isolated incident . . . and it won't have implications outside the UK". The withdrawal began on Friday and was likely to be 80 to 85 per cent complete within 24 hours.
The Financial Times however suggests that Coke's ambitions for the UK may now be unrealisable.
Allyson Stewart-Allen, a London-based marketing adviser, said in the Financial Times: "It is now going to be next to impossible for Coke to relaunch Dasani in the UK."

Neil Hedges, chairman of Fishburn Hedges, the public relations and corporate reputation consultancy, also felt a UK relaunch "may be just too much for such a new product." This is in spite of the fact that Coca-Cola has followed best practice in product recalls by acting swiftly.

According to the Financial Times, analysts at JP Morgan and Morgan Stanley both questioned the viability of the company's plan to launch Dasani in other European countries. But Coca-Cola said it still plans to launch Dasani on April 19 in France, the most sophisticated bottled water market in the world.

Unlike the UK, the variety of Dasani to be sold in France is a genuine mineral water. Paul Gordon, president of Coca-Cola France, said: "The arrival of Coca-Cola in the bottled water market in France is as important to the company as the launch of Coca-Cola light [as Diet Coke is known] in 1988."

Bottom line

Coca-Cola's hope that consumers would see the succession of negative stories as unimportant is not shared by the financial analysts in respect of the situation in the UK. Once a set of stories like these emerge and receive considerable publicity, they tend to stick in consumer's minds as indelible memory of the kind of product Dasani "really" is. Thereafter Coca-Cola can produce all the facts that it wants to, and these facts may all be 100 percent reliable. But the negative brand narrative that has now been created about Coke's unreliability in respect of Dasani will be very difficult to dislodge, at least in the UK..

Read The Guardian (UK)

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