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Mark Thomas - Won't Give the World a Coke

By Mark Thomas | New Statesman | 3/9/06
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As Jamie Oliver whizzes around on his Vespa of health and schools knock the sale of fizzy drinks on the head, Coke is in a bind, writes Mark Thomas

Tonight With Trevor McDonald is not something that some folk admit to watching. Mainly people don't admit to watching it because it is rubbish. And in any case, they don't watch it. Tonight With ... is less a current-affairs flagship and more of a Herald of Free Enterprise ferry — big, brash and lying on its side in the harbour.

However, I was moved to watch the "Has Coke lost its fizz?" programme. Coca-Cola's recent story is one of stumbling growth, partly explained by a crash in sales of fizzy drinks. But it is also connected to a product so sugary that Kate Moss could double her body weight by drinking one can, to stories of trade unionists murdered by paramilitaries in Colombia, and to drought-stricken villages in India.

The programme went out on 6 March, after being pulled from the schedules at the last minute and delayed for a week. According to the ITV duty office this was due to "compliance" issues. Granada's press office says it was "technical" problems. Whatever the reason, Coca-Cola is having a bad time - and really knows it is when a programme such as Tonight With Trevor comes lumbering after it.

The fizzy drinks market has begun to collapse. In a troubled seven-year period from 1998 to 2005, the company's share price halved. The figures out for last year's sales show only 1 per cent growth for Coca-Cola Enterprises UK, which is bad news for Coke. Even the company was forced to admit its problems: "Our business growth is not what we would hope." The 170 redundancies it announced in January are a more accurate reflection of its woes.

As Jamie Oliver whizzes around on his Vespa of health, as schools knock the sale of fizzy drinks on the head, and as Britain gets the health-food bug, Coke has taken a pounding. Its attempts to get into the UK's bottled-water market were fantastically farcical. Dasani, the brand name forever associated with Peckham Spring, was found to be Kent tap water with some minerals in it.

Whereas there is nothing wrong with tap water — or, indeed, with Coca-Cola adding a few minerals and salts to it — punters felt disinclined to pay a quid for a bottle of the stuff.

Following a media storm over the ingredients, Dasani was withdrawn from the market, with no plans to relaunch it in this country. Which leaves Coca-Cola in a bind: more people are opting for water than fizzy drinks, but the company's water brand is even deader than Tessa Jowell's career. So how is the company going to break into the water market?

Step forward Aquarius, a lemon-flavoured non-carbonated drink that happens to sell rather well in Spain. Coca-Cola has been testing punters' reactions to it in the UK. Marketed in trusty natural-blue hues — the bottled-water seller's favourite — and with a bottle design associated with sports and health drinks, the new product is, according to some close to the company, ready to launch in the summer.

Paradoxically, Coca-Cola has just launched its answer to Red Bull, Relentless, which carries the warning "Not suitable for pregnant women". This, you might think, runs slightly counter to a healthy image. But then Coke has never been all about making the world a healthier place.

As if the company didn't have enough on its plate, along came intriguing scenes at War on Want's annual general meeting on 25 February. The charity's council had decided to support the call for a boycott of Coca-Cola in protest at the killing by paramilitaries of workers at Coke bottling plants in Colombia.

Members of the trade union Amicus turned up in force to oppose the planned ban, handing out leaflets stating that they had "consulted with the workers in Colombia and have been assured by them that they do not support a call for a boycott". Obviously, these people have not spoken to the Colombian trade union Sinaltrainal, which initiated the call for a boycott following the deaths of a number of its members.

Stranger still was the presence of the public relations man Douglas Trainer, seen sitting and chatting with the Amicus bloc. Trainer is a PR man consulted by Coca-Cola (in an advisory capacity, it is keen to stress). So what was a PR man with connections to Coke doing at a War on Want AGM? Was he a member? "Yes," said Trainer. So when did he join? "Thursday." Two days before the AGM.

When advisers to Coca-Cola are joining charities two days before crucial votes that will affect Coke, things appear a tad desperate for the company.

So why all the shenanigans at the War on Want AGM?

Trainer is an ex-president of the National Union of Students. Coke currently faces a major NUS conference vote on the issue of boycotting the company. As Coca-Cola's contract with the student purchasing body NUSL is up for renewal, advocates of a boycott are using the opportunity to force a vote. Has Trainer been asked to steer the company through the choppy waters of the NUS vote? Coca-Cola did not comment on this suggestion.

The event is already causing the company some concern, regardless of the outcome. The last thing it needs is War on Want lining up alongside Unison as supporters of the boycott and creating any kind of momentum on the issue.

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