The Atlanta Journal and Constitution
THE POLITICS OF fizz ‘Islamic’ colas take aim at U.S. giants, using political message to carve out sales
BYLINE: SCOTT LEITH, Staff
SECTION: Atlanta & the World
A woman named Firoza Ismail runs a small store in Surrey, British Columbia, where she relies on a clientele of Muslims who live in that corner of Canada. When a salesman showed up late last year and asked whether she would sell something called Qibla-Cola, Ismail agreed. She placed the soft drink on shelves right next to cans of Coca-Cola and Pepsi.
This little bit of competition has been more of a cola skirmish than a full-blown cola war, but the fact that Qibla has made it to Canada at all — and could jump the border into the United States — is a sign that some products that popped up last year to protest U.S. policies in the Middle East have survived, if not succeeded.
“We’ve had a lot of requests for it,” said truck-driver-turned-entrepreneur Mohammad Jafar Bhamji, Qibla’s first and so far only distributor in Canada.
Qibla-Cola and other “Islamic colas” — namely Mecca-Cola and Cola Turka — have endured as small but high-profile symbols of those who are against U.S. policies. By going after those most-American of American products — Coca-Cola chiefly, but also Pepsi — these companies hope to take advantage of anti-U.S. sentiment in the world.
“The marketing perspective for our brands has been as an alternative soft drink to people of conscience,” said Abdul-Hamid Ebrahim, a spokesman for Qibla-Cola, which is based in Derby, England.
To be sure, these products appear to pose little real threat to the U.S. giants. In Britain, Qibla’s home market, the company claims to have sales of about 3.1 million gallons a year. Coke sells roughly that much in Britain in less than two days.
Beating the big boys is tough, even in wide-open markets where anti-American sentiment is high. Pepsi announced in January that it will re-enter Iraq through a deal with a bottling partner there. And a Coke bottler from Turkey has talked with potential bottlers in Iraq, too.
So what about Qibla? Still talking. Ebrahim said Qibla has had discussions about getting into Iraq, including as recently as two weeks ago. “We hope to conclude that soon,” Ebrahim said.
All this activity exists within the volatile context of the polarizing situation in the Middle East.
The soft drink scuffles originated before the U.S.-led attack on Iraq even got under way last year. Political activists around the world were upset with the United States, and some
launched boycotts of American goods, typically targeting well-known icons such as McDonald’s and Coca-Cola.
The attention was a boon for some brands that already existed, like Iran’s Zam Zam.
With a new kind of market suddenly opening up, a brand called Mecca-Cola appeared. It was launched by Tawfik Mathlouthi, a Tunisian-born French businessman.
His Paris-based company coined a provocative and politically emotive slogan — “No more drinking stupid, drink with commitment!” — aimed at the U.S. cola giants and set out to try to establish a niche in the markets they controlled.
Mecca-Cola first showed up in stores in France in late 2002, just as the debate over an invasion of Iraq dominated world headlines.
Today, with strife continuing in the Middle East, Mecca’s pitch remains decidedly political, with a Web site that includes violent scenes from the Middle East.
Qibla came along a few months after Mecca, in February 2003, and was positioned a bit more subtly. Ebrahim calls Qibla an “ethical” product and one not exclusively intended for Muslims.
“It wants to transcend any type of ethnicity, color, religious background,” he said. And Qibla has the distinction of being the first to have a distributor in North America.
Then there’s Cola Turka, which was launched in the summer of 2003 by a Turkish food company, Ulker Group. While the brand was months behind Mecca and Qibla, Turka’s owners made a splash by signing U.S. actor Chevy Chase as a pitchman.
All the while, news reports worldwide chronicled the birth of these brands. But creating an image and ads is relatively easy, as is sending out a political message, compared to the humdrum but critical issues of distribution.
Thus the reason that Qibla, Mecca and Turka are not on store shelves in the United States.
In Atlanta, Saira Razzak, owner of the Bismillah Halal Meat store in Marietta, said she has never heard of Qibla or Mecca colas.
In New York, the Muslim colas haven’t shown up, either. Lewis Hershkowitz, chief operating officer of a large beverage distributor called Big Geyser, keeps a close eye on the vast market. So far, the only place he’s seen Mecca-Cola is in the newspapers.
In the past, Coca-Cola has made few comments on these rival brands. And the company’s not changing its tune now.
“The Coca-Cola Co. welcomes free and fair competition in every market where we do business,” said spokesman Kelly Brooks. “We do not directly discuss competitive products.”
A look at Coke’s sales numbers, however, shows how hard it is to have an impact.
Coke is a vast company, and the Middle East accounts for a tiny portion of overall sales.
Europe, however, is a big market, and anti-American sentiment ran high through much of 2003. But Coke’s sales were strong there last year, thanks to a massive heat wave.
Combined, Coke and Pepsi hold at least half of the soft-drink market through Europe, including 57 percent in Britain and 58 percent in Germany, two big markets.
In much of the Middle East, the totals are even greater. In Saudi Arabia, for example, Coke and Pepsi together own 96 percent of the market, according to Beverage Digest.
So the bits of Islamic cola activity — in the Middle East, in Europe, even up in Canada — might not be of much worry to the big soft drink makers.
Ismail, the shopkeeper in British Columbia, doesn’t exactly see Qibla flying off the shelves. “It’s picking up, put it that way,” she said.
Entrepreneurs, however, are likely to keep trying to find a way to succeed. Bhamji is still seeking salespeople and looks longingly across the border, hoping to find a way to sell in Seattle and maybe elsewhere in the United States.
“It’s not so easy,” he said.