The recent media storm in the UK over the labeling of the Coca-Cola-owned water brand Dasani once again called for the soft drinks giant to defend its image against a barrage of negative press comment and publicity. Ben Cooper examines the Dasani furore and asks why dealing with such media feeding frenzies has become part and parcel of Coca-Cola's day-to-day existence.

Apart from the hundreds of millions of dollars made every year in profits, it can't be easy being Coca-Cola. To a degree a victim of its own success, the soft drinks giant is a target, some might even say a magnet, for bad publicity. Issues or events that embarrass or put this awesome corporation at a disadvantage are always likely to become major news stories.

Whether it is responding to consumer boycotts in Muslim countries in protest against US hegemony or Indian villagers complaining that a bottling plant has deprived them of their water supply, the Coke PR machine is well practised at tackling negative publicity and putting the group's side of the story. Most frequently of late it has been the allegations that sweet carbonated soft drinks bear a large part of responsibility for rising child obesity which have been keeping it whirring.

So it must be particularly galling that the latest product to cause the Coca-Cola PR directors sleepless nights is a brand which by any objective measure must be considered among its most healthy, and one which doctors would no doubt be happy to see us all consume in ample quantities.

The product in question is Coke's purified water brand, Dasani, which became the subject of a media furore in the UK a few weeks after its launch in February. As a purified water, Dasani is sourced from a mains supply, purified by a reverse osmosis process, following which certain minerals are added.

It is not the fact that Coca-Cola is marketing purified tap water that has angered some competitors and consumer groups, and attracted the interest of the media, but that Dasani is described on its labeling as "pure, still water". It has been suggested that the use of the term "pure" for a product with added ingredients could infringe UK food labeling regulations.

According to Food Standards Agency (FSA) guidelines, the word "pure" should only be applied to "single ingredient foods or to highlight the quality of ingredients". With regard to Dasani, the FSA said that Coca-Cola might be in breach of guidelines designed to protect consumers from misleading product descriptions.

"This bottled water does not appear to follow our labeling guidance on the use of the term 'pure,'" an FSA spokesperson was quoted as saying. "Consumers may not realise that there are three types of water sold in bottles: natural mineral water, spring water and drinking water (which can be tap water). If a product is not labeled as mineral water or spring water, it will, in fact, be bottled drinking water."

However, Coca-Cola said that it was confident it had not breached any rules. "Our stand on this is that we are compliant with all the regulations," Coca-Cola spokesperson, Judith Snyder, told Just-drinks. "We actually already have 'purified' on there but it is on the back and it is quite specific about the reverse osmosis process."

Snyder said that it was customary for fuller technical details to be on the back label while a more succinct description is on the front. "The marketing descriptor goes on the front and the technical descriptor goes on the back," she said.

However, Snyder added that while Coke had no plans to do so at present, if the front label were found to be in breach of regulations, it would consider putting "purified" water on the front label as well as the back. Snyder also pointed out that the word "purified" was viewed very positively in the consumer research the company carried out prior to the launch, so this would not necessarily be damaging from a marketing point of view.

Although the formulation in the UK is slightly different, Dasani is produced by the same process in the US, where it has rapidly grown to become the number two bottled water brand behind PepsiCo's Aquafina brand, since its launch in 1999. But while Coca-Cola clearly saw a purified water as a viable option for the UK market, in France it has decided to launch the brand as a source water. It could also now be facing a similar situation over Dasani in Sweden as it is tackling in the UK.

However, Coca-Cola refutes the idea that the choice to launch Dasani as a purifed water rather than a source water in the UK under-estimated the sophistication of the UK consumer. "It's more to do with the palate to be honest," Snyder said. "We did try a lot of source waters and purified waters. We achieved the optimum taste for the product. When we were testing the various tastes the first question wasn't where it came from; it was a comment on the taste."

The adverse publicity has without doubt disrupted the £7m UK launch of Dasani. But Snyder put a brave face on this and suggested that, in spite of the negative aspects to the case at present, in the long run the publicity would be good for the brand.

"The main thing is that if you look past the headlines you do see the message coming through about purification," says Snyder. "If we had asked people to write about reverse osmosis they probably wouldn't have done so. We couldn't have paid for those front pages but we have got people talking about purified water."

In the face of a media storm, The Coca-Cola Company has done its best to fight its corner. However, for all that the media once again has the better story. This is partly because of the specific factors behind this case. Though you may have to be British or have spent a long time in the UK to appreciate this, somehow the fact that the water supply for Dasani is in Sidcup, a suburb on the outer edge of south-east London, does add a certain comic dimension to the story. With apologies to the good burghers of Sidcup, this place could not have less in common with the beautiful locations often associated with pure spring water. There are no Alpine lakes, not even a rolling Malvern Hill or a Brecon Beacon. It's just Sidcup. And headlines such as "Eau de Sidcup" are funny.

Another aspect to the story which made it irresistible to journalists was that a popular UK sitcom called "Only Fools and Horses" had featured a storyline where the somewhat hapless main characters had attempted to make themselves rich by bottling ordinary tap water and marketing it as mineral water. In the case of the TV show it was Peckham Spring - Peckham as it happens is only about 10 miles from Sidcup - but the comic value was much the same.

But for all the comedy value, possibly the prime underlying factor that makes such a story lighten any news editor's day is that it is Coca-Cola. It has to be said that if Coca-Cola wasn't so good at what it does - and had not been doing what it does so well for so long - it probably would not have to deal with so many of these types of stories. Purified water accounts for some 44% of the global bottled water market and there are other purified waters being marketed in the UK but Coca-Cola's is the one making the biggest splash. Like any huge corporation, and perhaps particularly because of its massively pervasive brand presence, journalists and readers seem to like it when Coke can be "brought down a peg or two".

While the company line is rigorously and ably held, when questioned about the story, one PR executive replied that he had not been in the office last week. While there was little qualification of this statement, the pleasure and relief clearly derived from being away while this was being dealt with was palpable. Unfortunately, the relief will, in all probability, only be temporary, until the next story emerges and the Coca-Cola PR professionals have once again to defend their company's carefully nurtured corporate or brand images.

Yes, the millions of dollars in profits probably make the trouble they have to go through worthwhile. But while the marketers may be seen as the individuals who
create those millions, who are the architects of the success that makes Coca-Cola such a media target, one might spare a thought for the contribution made by the group's legions of PR executives, who find themselves fighting the fires when the Coca-Cola edifice comes under threat. They clearly earn their money too.

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