View From The Top: International Ambition

Qibla Cola chief Mohammed Haider talks to Claire Murphy about ethics behind the brand

There is no greater way of illustrating the difference between Coca-Cola and its 'Islamic' competitor brand Qibla than by visiting the latter's offices. Languishing on a shabby high street in suburban Derby, Qibla occupies a former shop premises and the floor above. The old shop is empty, except for a few crates of Qibla Cola lying around.

But the down-at-heel appearance is deceptive. In these rooms a germ of an idea dreamt up 18 months ago by a local fashion designer has grown into a booming international brand. In volume terms it may not be causing Coca-Cola or Pepsi any headaches yet, but the potential for the kind of alternative brand model that Qibla represents is great, and this is what is worrying the multinationals.

Ethical principles

Mohammed Haider, Qibla's 33-year-old CEO, heads a ten-strong management team made up of British Muslims. The brand name is an Arabic word for 'direction', and the initial target audience has been British cities such as Birmingham, Derby and Leicester, all with a large Muslim population.

Haider is adamant that Qibla is not designed to be anti-American, or anti-capitalist: 'Qibla has universal values that cut through ethnicity, religion or class. And, despite the fact that ten per cent of profits go to charities, we're not running a charity ourselves; we want to create a profitable global brand, but one which is based on an alternative model of doing business.'

Haider is careful to avoid any derogatory direct references to Coca-Cola or Pepsi, even though much of Qibla's brand character is defined by how it differs from the multinationals. There are obvious legal reasons for this, but Haider says the firm decided early on that it would not explicitly knock the cola giants.

Qibla has attracted much attention since its launch last February, due to the political environment and the fact that it is battling against Mecca Cola. In a BBC documentary in February, Message in a Bottle, Mecca founder Tawfik Mathlouthi was shown yelling in frustration at his staff, while the Qibla team was seen professionally planning its Pakistan launch.

PR has been managed on a 'shoestring' budget - marketer Abdul-Hamid Ebrahim and two part-time assistants handle everything in-house. Although Qibla has gained the kind of PR attention that many larger brands dream of, its challenge has been to differentiate itself from its rivals, and to show itself to be up to the task of rolling out a brand worldwide.

Haider feels that Qibla is on its way to achieving both aims. Operationally, the business is regarded as solid in the UK, with one million bottles sold a month and a major contract with a national retailer about to be signed. It has expanded beyond just cola and sells spring water and fruit drinks under the Qibla brand, with production sub-contracted.

Being regarded as a professional outfit is very important to Haider as Qibla's business model rests on licensing the brand internationally with franchise partners. Local distributors are already managing Qibla sales in Holland, Germany, Norway, Luxembourg and Canada, with contracts about to be signed in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia and India. Haider is also in discussions with potential local distributors in 50 other countries.

The pressure is on to make sure that those partners will uphold the brand values of Qibla.

It's a massive job for a man whose commercial experience is largely limited to his MBA course. After university he pursued a career in urban transport planning, focusing on researching sustainable transport options for local authorities.

He was part of the group which initiated Qibla - a group of friends of Zafar Iqbal, the original chief executive, who now handles all the IT, commercial and legal matters. The group met in the evenings and on weekends in Iqbal's lounge for six months planning the Qibla launch. Two months ago Haider took up the CEO role as the company moves into its next phase of growth.

Time management

A quietly spoken man, Haider talks lucidly about branding and gives the impression of effortlessly juggling his responsibilities. He says he's learnt to manage his time over the past year, and now does most of the negotiations via email, only flying off for a two or three-day visit when he's almost certain that a partner is the right one. He generally returns to the office after a trip like this to find 300 emails in his inbox - many of them CVs from excited potential recruits.

He also manages to squeeze family life into this mix, insisting that he spends his evenings with his wife and four kids: 'I'm very good at switching off while I'm cooking.' But once his family is in bed, he opens up his laptop and works until 2 or 3am.

Many people running a year-old business work crazy hours. But Haider is clearly highly motivated by the ethos of Qibla, which he says reflects the principles underpinning his work on sustainable transport. And it's personal for him. While describing the thinking behind choosing water scarcity as one of the issues that Qibla intends to support through charitable donations, he tries to convey just how important an issue this is.

'When you think about how some people don't have enough water to drink, it makes you want to cry just thinking about it,' he says.

Its rare to be able to combine this level of passion with running an influential FMCG brand and Haider is in no doubt that he has a job many people would want: 'I love being in the deep end, working at the cutting edge. The progress of the company speaks for itself.'

And those offices? 'We're moving in the summer, to somewhere slightly swankier. But we're not moving away from our roots - we'll still be in Derby.'

1998: European project manager for transport strategy, Nottingham City

Council

2003: Chief business development officer, Qibla Cola Company

2004: Appointed chief executive of Qibla Cola Company

QIBLA AND THE COMPETITION IN THE MEDIA

Qibla doesn't name Coca-Cola and Pepsi when it makes reference to the kind of brand behaviour it wants to avoid. But Qibla (and Mecca) benefits in media coverage from its position as commercial underdog in the mature cola market.

Conversely, Coca-Cola particularly is generally portrayed from the perceived perspective of its market dominance, often linked, albeit obliquely, to its US ownership.

Negative stories in the UK media in the past two months alone include claims that Coca-Cola has been using tap water from Sidcup under its Dasani brand.

Whatever the facts behind these stories, they all play to the perception that Qibla is propounding of the cola giants - that they are not playing straight.

Coca-Cola has an extensive programme of sponsorships, charitable links and community activities, but in the UK they are mostly in the areas of football, music and literacy to appeal to the brand's core market of teens and young people. One recent initiative was the launch of its legal music download site.

Internationally,the firm has expanded the reach of its charitable foundation.

It signed a three-year agreement with the UN Aids programme in 2001 that has seen Coca-Cola help out with the communication of health messages in many African countries.

Pepsi doesn't suffer from the same degree of negative media attention as its larger rival, but also has a lower CSR profile. Much of its charitable donations are focused on educational establishments in the US, although it made two significant donations internationally in recent years - $500,000 to help earthquake victims in Gujarat in 2001, and the same amount last year to improve sanitation and healthcare in Iraq.

In the UK, both brands have had a unique PR challenge over the past year.

The gathering storm over childhood obesity has led the pair, like many food and drink manufacturers, to maintain a low profile on corporate issues.

This has given brands like Qibla a free run to make their case.

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Register
Already registered?
Sign in

Would you like to post a comment?

Please Sign in or register.