LEADER: Coca-Cola water leaves bitter taste

When Coca-Cola put touched-up tap water in jazzy bottles and marked up the cost by 3,000 per cent, it really should have seen the PR firestorm coming. The apparent absence of any media nous at all in the product planning stage is quite astonishing.

Coke, it has been widely reported, threw £7m behind the UK launch of Dasani, a bottled water brand that has been selling in the US for four years. The launch was lavish, with a major ad campaign and the unmistakable sense that here was a serious brand being built at pace by one of the world's foremost FMCG groups.

The only thing the marketing wizards failed to communicate clearly was that this wasn't bottled water like Evian, Vittel or Badoit. It was water from a tap in Sidcup that had been filtered and then had some minerals added to it. Nothing so terrible about that, you might think, if the PR story had been 'look what our technology can do to plain old tap water'.

There were, instead, only vague intimations of this, with reports that 'unlike (its) rivals... Dasani does not claim the provenance of a source spring'. As if this were a positive USP!

There is, of course, a debate as to whether all (or almost all) publicity is good publicity. Indeed, there are brand managers who would kill for the sort of coverage Dasani created for itself this week. It has achieved brand fame far quicker than, say, Coca-Cola itself ever did.

But a more sophisticated reading of the situation demands that the coverage should also be used as a vehicle for communicating key messages. And if one was asked to divine what those messages were in the light of recent coverage, what might one say? 'We think you're thick and wish to rip you off by putting touched-up tap water in a bottle and marking up the cost by 3,000 per cent.'

There is a blind spot in some corporations that seems to prevent them treating prospective customers with respect, and to fail to employ an irony-detector at an early enough stage in the process. They can't then be surprised if the lack of respect is repaid in kind by insulted shoppers.

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