Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
By Tom Hundley, Chicago Tribune Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Feb. 5–LONDON–Think of the cola wars and you think of Coke and Pepsi slugging it out for domination of the global soft drink market.
Think again. A new wave of entrepreneurs is taking advantage of the anti-American climate in Europe and the Middle East to market products that taste like the real thing, but with a decidedly anti-American political flavor.
These days it’s Mecca Cola vs. Qibla Cola in the battle for the hearts and minds of the post-Pepsi generation.
Mecca Cola, the brainchild of French-Tunisian businessman Tawfiq Mathlouthi, first appeared on grocery store shelves across France late last year. Originally targeted at French Muslims who wanted to boycott American products and protest U.S. policies in the Middle East, the new cola quickly caught on with a much broader market.
The label urges consumers not to drink “like an idiot” but with an “engaged” political consciousness. Mathlouthi has promised to donate 10 percent of the company’s profits to a Palestinian charity.
According to a company spokesman, sales are brisk and orders for Mecca Cola have been received from distributors in Britain, Belgium, Germany, Australia and Canada.
So Tuesday’s launch of Qibla Cola throughout Britain’s largest cities comes as no great surprise. Qibla refers to the direction of Mecca, which Muslims face when they pray.
Along with the usual dose of sugar, caffeine and carbonation, Qibla Cola also packs a dollop of politics.
“The Qibla brand offers a real alternative for people concerned by the practices of some major western multinationals who support causes that oppress Muslims,” said company founder Zahida Parveen, a businesswoman from the English city of Derby.
“By choosing to boycott major brands, consumers are sending a powerful signal that the exploitation of Muslims cannot continue unchecked,” said Parveen, who pledged that she, too, would donate 10 percent of the profits to an Islamic charity.
Qibla has started with an initial production run of 250,000 bottles and hopes to increase to a million bottles by next month. There are also plans to introduce a lemon-flavored soft drink called Qibla Seven and an orange-flavored drink called Qibla Fantasy.
Both Qibla Cola and Mecca Cola come wrapped in labels that bear a striking resemblance to the familiar Coca-Cola logo.
Kelly Brooks, a spokesman for Coca-Cola, said the company was aware of the both Mecca Cola and Qibla Cola, but had no comment on possible trademark infringement issues.
“As a matter of policy, the Coca-Cola Company does not comment on the competitive products and affairs of other companies,” he said.
But he noted that Coke “is not affiliated with any religion or ethnic group. We also do not support or oppose governments, political or religious causes and do no take a stance on issues that do not directly affect the soft drink industry.”
Although Qibla Cola’s initial target market is the 2.5 million-strong Muslim community in Britain, Abdul Hamid Ebrahim, a spokesman for the company, said the real prize would be places like Indonesia, with 200 million Muslims; Pakistan, with more than 140 million Muslims; and Bangladesh, with more than 126 million.
“The market is massive,” he said. “There are 1.5 billion Muslims in the world and many other people of conscience who understand how some American companies oppress the Third World, especially the Muslim world.”
Ebrahim acknowledged that the early success of Mecca Cola in France was “in our thought process” but said the company’s real model was Zam Zam Cola, an Iranian company that saw sales blossom a few years ago after a prominent cleric ruled that both Coke and Pepsi were “un-Islamic.”
Since the start of the latest Palestinian intifada two years ago, calls to boycott some of the products most closely associated with America–Coke, McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken–have been increasing, and several companies are starting to feel the pinch.
Coca-Cola executives recently acknowledged that the boycott had hurt sales in North Africa, especially in Egypt and Morocco.