Coca-Cola’s recall of 500,000 bottles of its propriety brand of UK bottled water, Dasani, is not without precedent in the designer water industry. Before any of the other major brands of bottled water start feeling too smug about Dasani’s fate, they would do well to remember that even the mighty Perrier has been through a similar debacle. And Perrier’s experience offers Coca-Cola some cautionary tales.
It was in early 1990 that the Vergeze-based Source Perrier was obliged to recall 160 million bottles of Perrier worldwide. The Dasani crisis pales by comparison.
The problem back then was that miniscule traces of a carcinogenic agent called benzene had been detected in Perrier. As Coca-Cola has just discovered, quantitative arguments under these circumstances are pointless – no one cares that the cancer-causing agents present are in such small quantities as to be irrelevant.
As it happened, the only immediate health risk from Perrier in 1990 would have been if you jumped into a swimming pool full of it, wearing concrete trousers. According to US authorities, we would have needed to drink half a litre of the old benzene-polluted Perrier every day for 30 years in order to have exposed ourselves to a million-to-one risk of contracting cancer from it.
This seemed to make drinking Perrier considerably safer than drinking, say, whisky, which had (happily) not been withdrawn from the shelves. I’m not talking about drinking half a litre of whisky a day for 30 years, either – we all know that alcohol consumption is linked to cancers of the gullet, pancreas and bowel.
In light of this, I started using Perrier as my mixer of choice in whisky-and-soda as a mark of solidarity. I don’t know how much Dasani you would have to drink to be damaged by its bromate, but my point is that we get far more carried away by traces of carcinogens in water than we ever would about the background risks associated with other products.
The next lesson that Coca-Cola can learn from Perrier’s experience is that people go bonkers about price when it comes to water, in a way that they don’t over the costs of other products.
There has been much fuss over a half-litre of Dasani costing 95p, while the equivalent measure of Thames Water’s base product, from which Dasani is “enhanced”, costs just 0.03p. But some in the dairy industry can let milk turn sour and call it “live yoghurt” and no one cares.
Thames Water has remarked somewhat sniffily that Dasani’s “enhancement” of its product – read “putting bromate in it” – implied that the water wasn’t wholesome in the first place.
Water companies are very proud of their purity. But before they become too self-righteous in the face of bottled water excesses, we should remember that at about the same time as the Perrier crisis they were raising their prices for tap water, in the wake of privatisation of supply, by as much as 15 per cent.
This prompted the Labour opposition at the time to claim that if the managers of water companies were public sector workers, prime minister Margaret Thatcher would have been condemning them for causing rampant inflation.
The next pointer for Coca-Cola is that there’s nothing like poisoned water for exciting the xenophobic tendency. Benzene sounds similar to the Italian word for petrol – the Italians were fond of saying in 1990 that they preferred that as a beverage to French water.
Meanwhile, there was ill-concealed delight in the British water industry – into which French companies such as Compagnie Generale des Eaux had bought heavily at privatisation – that a French bottled water company should be suffering such embarrassment.
As it turned out, Perrier turned the situation to its advantage by producing special, benzene-free labelling for its products and using the whole issue as a sales campaign – as it had similarly exploited the rumour during the summer of 1989 that its source had dried up.
I doubt Coca-Cola will be able to perform the same trick with Dasani. But it should know that foreign markets such as the UK will enjoy its discomfort, just because it is perceived to be American – as unpopular a nationality commercially as the French were 14 years ago.
Perhaps the most telling lesson of the Dasani debacle is that no global brand – not even Coca-Cola – is infallible. Indeed, we knew that when the core Coke product caused stomach upsets in Belgium in 1999.
The fallibility of the super-brands is apparent as never before. Disney has been beleagured by a major management crisis; Shell has been suffering a similar blow to the image of invincibility with its phantom oil reserves; Microsoft is constantly vulnerable to viruses and regulatory lawsuits.
The formerly mystical power of these global brand giants is under threat. That’s the real poison in the bottle.
George Pitcher is a partner at communications management consultancy Luther Pendragon