Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
By Scott Leith, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Feb. 7–Mecca-Cola’s sales may be small, but this fledgling soft drink has generated more than enough buzz.
First marketed in France late last year as a Muslim-friendly alternative to American brands, Mecca-Cola has become an avenue to protest U.S. policies in the Middle East.
Offering a mix of business and politics, the brand is spreading, too, including a small shipment destined for the United States.
“We took cola as a symbol to fight the American imperialists,” said Mecca-Cola’s founder, Paris businessman Tawfik Mathlouthi.
It has made for good political theater, chiefly in Europe, where Mathlouthi has received widespread media attention. It doesn’t hurt that a U.S. war with Iraq is looming.
This week, Mecca even spawned an imitator: Qibla Cola, a name that refers to the direction of Mecca, where Muslims face to pray. Qibla was introduced in England, where a BBC radio broadcaster did a taste test of Qibla vs. Coca-Cola (Coke won).
Tastes aside, the chances of Mecca-Cola, Qibla or other brands causing much financial pain for huge companies like Coke and Pepsi could be slim in the Middle East.
When it comes to soft drinks, the Middle East is a blip on the global radar screen. Coke gets less than 2 percent of its worldwide case sales from the region. Pepsi gleans 7 percent of its volume from the Middle East and Africa combined.
Doing business there has long been a challenge, too, given the sometimes-hostile reception to American businesses.
Coke learned that fact early on. When the company entered Israel in the mid-1960s, the Arab League put Coke on its boycott list. The company didn’t get taken off until 1991.
With the chill of the boycott, Coke settled in as the No. 2 soft drink player in the Middle East. Pepsi, meanwhile, became the leader.
In this context, Mecca-Cola has marked just the latest installment in ways activists have tried to combat the dominance of American business and ideas.
Mathlouthi’s own inspiration for Mecca-Cola came partly from Iran’s Zam Zam Cola, named for a holy spring in Mecca. Zam Zam, too, has enjoyed better sales in the midst of recent boycotts of American goods.
In marketing Mecca-Cola, Mathlouthi took an unabashedly political bent, including a pledge to donate 20 percent of his profits to Palestinian and European charities.
His Web site — www.mecca-cola.com — even includes photos of violent clashes in the Middle East.
Activism aside, average people in the Middle East might have mixed feelings about what to buy.
Alan Godlas, a religion professor at the University of Georgia, said there is a strong desire in Muslim countries to develop local products. But many still buy American.
“The general impression that I have received while traveling in the Muslim world is that while locally made products often sell for less, those who can afford to will still buy American-made, American-quality goods,” Godlas said.
Boycotts tend to focus on American icons like Coke and Pepsi. Lower-profile brands like Coke’s Sprite, for example, draw little attention from activists.
Steve LeRoy, a spokesman for Coke in Europe, declined to give specific figures about how the latest Middle East boycotts and new, local products have affected Coke’s sales. But he confirmed that calls to avoid American brands last year did cause “some impact.”
Meanwhile, Coke is trying to keep out of the political fray, even though it is keeping an eye on how the situation develops.
“The Coca-Cola business has neither any mandate nor any interest in supporting specific countries, or political, ideological or religious causes,” LeRoy said.
Coke also notes that its products are made locally. The company and its bottlers employ about 20,000 people in the Middle East, LeRoy said, including 200 Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
While Pepsi is the biggest soft drink player in the Middle East, Mecca-Cola nonetheless bears a striking resemblance to Coke. It uses lettering that suggests Coke’s script logo. And Mecca-Cola’s Web site is colored red and white and uses the familiar Coke “ribbon.”
As for sales, industry experts said Mecca-Cola has shown up in the media more than it has in stores. The product has had limited distribution in Europe, such as in Muslim-operated stores in Paris.
Mathlouthi said he sold more than 3 million bottles of Mecca-Cola in its first weeks on the European market in late 2002. At 1.5 liters each, that would be the equivalent of about 792,000 cases.
Coke, meanwhile, sells about 313 million cases of its products per year in the Middle East, or about 858,000 per day, according to the company’s 2001 annual report.
Nonetheless, Mathlouthi hopes his company will grow. He has contracts to sell Mecca-Cola beyond Europe, he said, and wants to build plants in Dubai, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
“I didn’t establish this brand for just a media impact,” Mathlouthi said. The United States has a “double standard in human rights,” favoring “America and Zionists.” Mathlouthi wants Mecca-Cola to help spread his message.
“The Earth contains other human beings,” he said.