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The cola jihad

 America is not exactly flavour of the month at the moment, least of all in the Islamic world. This disenchantment, for reasons that are clear enough to all except busloads of nonplussed Nebraska tourists clambering over European cathedrals, was confirmed by a study commissioned by the Bush administration that showed plummeting approval ratings for the US among Muslims worldwide. The BBC reported in October that one per cent of Jordanian respondents thought favourably of the US, down from 25 per cent during the middle of 2002; this in a country with a Westernised and not unpopular monarch in King Abdullah.

Yet while there is opposition, ranging from dissatisfaction to outright dissent, it has not yet deteriorated to the point of Muslim consumers in the global south eschewing those enduring symbols of America—Levis, burgers and Coca-Cola. Maybe it is because these brands in the FMCG sector (for the uninitiated that means Fast Moving Consumer Goods) are now global and as such have transcended their national origins. Muz Daud, marketing lecturer at the Indonesian Management Institute in Jakarta, suggests that this is not a contradiction disaffected Muslims feel the need to reconcile.

The consumer can make a distinction between what is written on the label of a bottle and what is said by a politician, they are two different things. It is not an unthinking approach but a rational one.
Daud’s argument might offer comfort to the anxious CEOs of global giants Procter & Gamble, Pepsi, Coca-Cola, Xerox and McDonald’s who convened with US embassy officials in Cairo during March to discuss the potential costs of the Iraq conflict for American firms. In recent years American brands have realised the need to adjust their products (McDonald’s selling lamb burgers in India, for example) for fear of losing out to competitors that cater to local tastes.

American brands are part of the global cultural superstructure. The products sold under these brands are, naturally, eaten, drunk and worn on the TV shows and films we see (or unnaturally in the gratuitous case of product placement), and have been promoted as the accoutrements of an idealised life through the clever image-creation of advertisers. But now there are competitors looking for new ways to locate their products within the consumer’s sense of self in order to get the ‘love mark’ that—according to Kevin Roberts, the global CEO of the premier advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi—the consumer gives to products they purchase automatically. The new players are taking on two of the globe’s mightiest brands in Coke and Pepsi by portraying themselves as the Islamic alternative.

Qibla, Zam Zam, and the unequivocally entitled Mecca Cola, have emerged in Europe, the Middle East and Asia to sell cola to the world’s 1.5 billion Islamic consumers. Though they have different histories—Mecca and Qibla were founded in Europe in the last 12 months by smart entrepreneurs, while Zam Zam is a product of the Iranian revolution—their aims are similar. Each brand is aimed to appeal to Muslim consumers guided by a sense of Islamic identity rather than by their aspirations for prosperous Western life.

Mecca Cola is the brainchild of French Tunisian businessman Tawfiq Mathlouthi who exhorts customers ‘not to drink like idiots’ and pledges ten per cent of proceeds to Palestinian charities.

The company website reads like a billboard for political Islam.

Mohammed Haider, Chief Business Development Officer at Qibla Cola, baulks at suggesting customers are idiots for drinking the well-known brands but would ask that they think before they drink.

We donate 10 per cent of our profits to charity and we are doing this because when profit is the sole driver it is not good for the community. We are asking consumers to liberate their taste buds from the multibillion dollar marketing machines.

Haider concedes that US policies have opened the door for Qibla and other brands in the Muslim market and goes further in suggesting big business itself is contributing.

All sorts of events have catalysed a thinking process—the Enron scandal, the war in Iraq, even Kyoto—and it is a global phenomenon. People are starting to question the behaviour of multinationals and this can affect what they buy.

Qibla, a transliteration of the Arabic word for direction, has hit sales of a million units a month since its launch in February by securing independent retailers and restaurants. While operating from the former technical college that is their office in the English Midlands (no expense has been wasted on remodelling save for the addition of a well-worn prayer mat in one corner), their goal is to take the brand global and do it fast. For the last three months Qibla has been selling in the Netherlands and it is looking to take its idea to the rest of western Europe in the next year. But the real opportunities, according to Haider, are in the large Muslim markets such as Bangladesh, Pakistan and Indonesia.

Helping the cause of the cola upstarts has been the use of the commercial symbols of America in protests around the globe. In Indonesia at the outset of the Iraq war in March, protests regularly targeted Coca-Cola and the fast-food outlets that mark the key points of Jakarta as they do in every other major world city. One particular group sealed off a California Fried Chicken outlet in West Java to make their point. In Malaysia there is a more caustic mood with the Muslim Consumers Association announcing a boycott of Coca-Cola in December last year. It was all the incentive Osman Ahmed at Zam Zam Malaysia needed.

We are struggling to keep up with demand and maybe it is because, though we don’t declare it openly, we support all in the world who are oppressed by imperialists and we let other people make their choices about that with our product.

The bottom line is that the people at Coke and Pepsi are unlikely to be hitting the panic button, or even the switch of mild concern, given their extraordinary dominance of the fizzy drinks market. A Harvard Business School study estimated that in 1999, of the 31 billion cases of soft drink sold worldwide, Coke sold 53 per cent and Pepsi 21 per cent. Yet the arrival on the scene of these new, conscience-pricking alternatives might add weight to other efforts, such as the fair trade campaign, in altering consumer choices. Their success would see the end of the dream of American-cool and the beginning of the desire for items that show that the good things in life can be found closer to home.  

Jon Greenaway is a freelance writer and consultant based in London.



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