Biz-Community (Cape Town)

18 June 2012

South Africa: Coca-Cola Cry-Baby

It never ceases to amaze me how corporate egos can lead to stupid knee-jerk decisions that end up damaging brands so much more than if they just swallowed their pride and moved on.

It is even more amazing when that brand is the world's greatest.

Coca-Cola in South Africa has gone to the media in a huff and to the law courts in high dudgeon because of an exhibit at OR Tambo airport showing how discarded plastic bottles impact on the environment.

Part of the exhibit consists of a few Coca-Cola bottles among a number of others.

Thoughtless reaction

Now, if Coca-Cola had just given this situation a tiny bit of thought before getting all steamed up, they would have calculated that of the thousands of people who pass through OR Tambo, not everyone would have noticed the exhibit and only a tiny number would have noticed the Coke, Fanta and Sprite bottles.

And quite frankly, I don't believe for a minute that any of the airline passengers rushing too and fro would have stopped to think; "oh wow, look I can actually see a Coke bottle in among all those others and I must remember now to boycott Coca-Cola because they are destroying the environment." Ridiculous.

So, what Coca-Coca South Africa has done is effectively take the awareness of the exhibit from impacting on a handful of people to impacting on millions. It is about the most insane piece of PR I have seen for a long time. It's one thing protecting a brand but another thing entirely feeding it to the wolves.

Only SA is huffy

So far there are no reports of any other Coca-Cola reaction to the same exhibits in a number of major airports around the world. Which might suggest that only its South African arm has got all huffy about it.

This campaign has been running internationally for over a year and The Cage eco-exhibit has been erected at high-profile events and venues around the world, most notably at the Chicago International Housewares Show in the US, Selfridges in the UK, and at airports in Canada, Belgium and New Zealand. The main message of The Cage: Plastic bottles contribute hugely to the consumption of resources and the destruction of our planet.

The OR Tambo cage shows the number of bottles an average SA family consumes and discards over a three-year period. It comes to 5078 bottles and that certainly drives the message home!

SodaStream South Africa labelled Coca-Cola's demand for it to take down its eco-exhibit at OR Tambo airport as absurd. "We care for the environment and we will not compromise on our environmental strategy which is to rid the world of plastic bottles. We have no intention of being silenced on our position nor will we be intimated by Coca-Cola. We will resist any challenge vigorously," confirmed SodaStream SA's managing director, Francois Dippenaar. "The truth is that plastic bottles destroy our planet. 340 billion bottles around the world still end up in landfills every year. Because of this threat to the planet we will continue telling the story."

Turning to the law

Coca-Cola decided on legal action to force SodaStream South Africa to remove the eco-exhibit which contains dumped and empty bottles that carry, among others, the Coca-Cola, Fanta and Sprite trademarks. The exhibit forms part of SodaStream International's global environmental campaign: 'Help Free the World from Bottles'.

Through its lawyers Coke is demanding that the exhibit be removed with immediate effect and that SodaStream should "cease the unauthorised use of their trademarks". They are also implying that SodaStream is contravening the Advertising Standards (ASA) code regarding guidelines on comparative advertising and on "being disparaging" of competitors' products.

"We have, to date, not experienced any international resistance from Coca-Cola, says Dippenaar. "I can only assume that Coca-Cola thinks that because SodaStream is small in South Africa we are easier to bully. This is where Coca-Cola is making a mistake. SodaStream invented the environmentally friendly alternative. Our technology is revolutionary and empowers the consumer to instantly transform tap water into sparkling drinks at home. You simply don't need the bottling factories and the billions of bottles and cans they produce every year. Coca-Cola is one of the main contributors to plastic bottle pollution in South Africa and SodaStream intends to lobby government for the introduction of a plastic bottle tax in South Africa to protect our environment."

It is going to be interesting to see where this litigation actually gets to court. And if it does and if Coca-Cola wins - the end result for this greatest brand in all the world will be that its brand ego will be intact but the brand damage will be thousands of times higher than if they had just ignored there whole thing.

What Coke SA has done is seen a tiny little flame and instead of just leaving it to dwindle into nothing they have now poured petrol all over it and started a conflagration.

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