THE POLITICS OF fizz


'Islamic' colas take aim at U.S. giants, using

political message to carve out sales

Scott Leith - Staff

Wednesday, February 4, 2004



http://www.ajc.com/wednesday/content/epaper/editions/wednesday/atlanta_world_0402a44791d40189001b.html



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. 





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