Drinks giant Coca-Cola faces a fresh PR challenge posed by the latest entrant to the soft drink market, Mecca-Cola, which is hoping to cash in on global anti-American sentiment. Last week's news that the drink's France-based producers have touted round for UK PR advisers has raised eyebrows among UK agency chiefs.
Despite at least one agency claiming to have been approached but rejecting the business, the drink's creator, French entrepreneur Tawfik Mathlouthi, has started talks with full-service shop Charles Anderson Group. The brief is expected to centre on launch media relations, corporate PR and crisis management.
Currently sold in the middle East and France, Mecca-Cola is now on sale in the UK following the backing of Islamic investment firm GulfHouse Finance.
Anderson MD Bally Chohan says a deal has not yet been signed but confirmed talks were ongoing. 'The client is very against us going out to talk to anyone. So far it has had some decent exposure that has been self-generated, but we have not started promoting it yet.'
Mecca-Cola looks like Coca-Cola, is in red packaging and tastes similar, but by drinking it buyers make a conscious decision to 'buy Muslim'.
Mathlouthi has been quoted in some quarters as saying that the entire positioning of the drink is about combating 'American imperialism and Zionism by providing a substitute for American goods'.
As a way of underlining this message, the company has pledged that over ten per cent of the company's profits will go to Palestinian charities.
So far it has orders for 16 million 1.5 litre bottles, with demand being 'phenomenal', having sold two million bottles in France in its first two months - even if this is a drop in the ocean compared with the Coke brands' annual combined UK volume of over two billion litres.
But if its early success is down to a unique sales proposition that is overtly anti-American, surely US brands of the size and style of Coca-Cola face a stiff PR challenge in dispelling the perception that they are simply agents of western power.
Coca-Cola is predictably reluctant to talk about Mecca. Coke's UK Europe, Eurasia and Middle East communications manager Paddy MacGregor insisted the company 'does not get involved in political or religious debates'.
One industry insider, however, says the comms issue highlighted by the emergence of challengers such as Mecca is not to de-Americanise, but to localise. He says: 'The challenge is to get as close to your consumer as you can and be as relevant in each market.' Coca-Cola is one of the most successful global brands to have 'localised', and more than four years ago the company changed its marketing mantra from 'think global act local' to 'think local and act local'.
MacGregor underlines Coca-Cola's local roots with employees in 200 countries, including almost 200 at a bottling plant in the Palestinian territories. Drawn into commenting on the new entrant to the market, he says: 'I would anticipate a minimal commercial threat.'
There are countless examples of consumers buying on the back of their politics. But one UK drinks importer says Mecca may struggle if its marketing is centred only on anti-Americanism. It is the ostensibly apolitical nature of global brands that enables their popularity to spread beyond early core markets, he says. Despite this, he is wary of Coke's dismissive attitude to its newest competitor: 'They are obviously going to say that, but to put it bluntly, there are a lot of Muslims in the world.'
Even if Mecca does strike a controversial marketing stance, not all PR chiefs rule out working with the product. One large agency boss says she would work with Mecca, 'like a shot', and agrees that the looming US-led military attack on Iraq could entrench feelings in the Muslim world and open up significant marketing opportunities for Mecca. 'In that context it would do well in the UK by tapping into its symbolism as the antithesis of Western imperialism,' she says.
The brand understanding of global corporations inevitably varies from country to country, but one thing they all share is the need to respond to changing consumer demand and to be more transparent in their attempts at corporate positioning. One senior marketing communications expert points to growing public and media scrutiny of multinational corporations, underlining the power of the 'No Logo' generation of anti-globalisation protesters: 'Most young people now are switched on and the meaning and integrity of brands is crucial,' he says.
The Mecca-Cola product has already made enough of a high-profile entrance for Coca-Cola PR chiefs to hope that any 'buy Muslim' trend is a short-lived one. But as politics increasingly impacts on consumer buying, the wider implications of national identity to multinationals poses ever-greater PR challenges.