Upstart cola taps anti-war vibe

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[london] Mecca-Cola, launched in France and the U.K. last November, is tapping into anti-American sentiment while imitating a classic American product, Coca-Cola.

In a public relations coup, Mecca-Cola dubbed itself sponsor of the one million-strong peace march in London on Feb. 15. Marchers were handed 36,000 bottles of cola and 10,000 T-shirts with the Mecca-Cola logo and the message "Stop the War" and "Not in my Name." In a stunt visible to TV viewers at home, a vehicle topped with a 20-foot-high Mecca-Cola can pulled a trailer with an outdoor board saying: "All human beings are born free and equal ... and should think before they drink." The stunt earned Mecca Cola this reference in London's Sunday Times: "The drink now seen as politically preferable to Pepsi or Coke."

"I might come to advertising in a year or two, but right now Mr. Bush is making our advertising with all his aggression and his war logic," said Tawfik Mathlouthi, Mecca-Cola's founder.

Mecca-Cola is not alone pursuing the world's 1.5 billion Muslims. Zam Zam Cola, an Iranian brand, is expanding its distribution. And Qibla Cola, a name that refers to the direction that Muslims face to pray, launched in the U.K. on Feb. 4 with the tagline, "Liberate your taste." Qibla created print and TV ads in-house. But Mecca-Cola's packaging is the one that looks like Coca-Cola. "Mecca-Cola Classic" is spelled out in white on red cans, pictured on meccacola.com, along with the promise that 20% of profits go to Palestinian and Muslim charities.

"One has to be respectful of any product which represents a political or social protest, but in terms of volume and market share, this will not be a threat to Coca-Cola or Pepsi," said John Sicher, editor, Beverage Digest.

Since November, Mecca-Cola claims to have sold 800,000 1.5 liter bottles in the U.K. and the same number in France, plus another two million bottles in the Middle East and Africa. Some 16 million bottles have been ordered, and some are heading to the U.S., Mr. Mathlouthi said. Still, that won't make much of a dent in Coca-Cola sales. Coca-Cola Britain has 42% of the carbonated soft-drink market.

Coca-Cola declined to comment.

Before Mecca-Cola's launch Mr. Mathlouthi, a Tun-isian-born businessman who moved to France in 1977, was best known as the founder 12 years ago of Paris' first ethnic radio station. Mecca-Cola is run from a Paris office staffed by a team of eight. Distribution is mainly through corner shops in the communities where Britain's 1.5 million Muslims are concentrated.

"I have no problem with Western products," Mr. Mathlouthi said. "Cola is a symbol of imperialism ... I'm targeting the symbol and the politics."

contributing: hillary chura

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