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Last Updated: Wednesday, 16 June, 2004, 12:19 GMT 13:19 UK
Coke's water bomb
By Bill Garrett
BBC Money Programme

Coca Cola is not a company known for making too many mistakes. Its marketing is slick and Coke is the best-selling soft drink in the world. Few would have predicted that Coke's attempt to launch its Dasani bottled water brand in the UK would prove to be a disaster for such an experienced company.

Dasani bottles on a cafe table
In just five weeks, Dasani had come and gone
Yet, in March this year, only five weeks after its multi million pound UK launch, red-faced Coke executives were forced to take Dasani off the shelves in the UK.

What went wrong?

Dasani was launched in the USA in 1999 as a bottled, purified water, and had become a huge success there. Taking that same formula and repeating it for the UK market must have looked like a breeze, but that wasn't quite how it turned out.

Unlike most of the bottled water sold in British petrol stations and supermarkets Dasani hadn't come from alpine glaciers or trickled out of a precious natural spring - it had come out of the local tap. True, the company put it through a purification process and added mineral salts, but the source was still tap water.

At its launch on 10 February, some people in the drinks industry already knew Dasani's big "secret". Simon Mowbray of The Grocer magazine had mentioned the source of the water in an article, but didn't think anyone else would pick up on it. Now, he sees it more graphically. "It was a bomb waiting to go off," he says.

The Real Sting

At first, the launch seemed to have go well, and Coke executives thought the public would respond to their new product with its distinctive blue packaging. But everything changed when the Press Association reporter Graham Hiscott saw the reference in the Grocer magazine to the real source of Dasani.

The following day, the story was splashed across the daily papers. Headlines like "The Real Sting" a play on Coke's "The Real Thing" slogan and the more obvious "Coke sells tap water for 95p" could hardly have been worse for Coke and their new baby.

Dasani advert
Coke could make a comeback in the UK
The tabloids drew on the uncanny parallel with the episode in the BBC sitcom "Only Fools and Horses", in which Del Boy and Rodney take ordinary tap water from their Peckham flat and bottle it up to sell as Peckham Spring. The irony couldn't have been worse. Dasani was sourced and bottled in a factory in Sidcup, just a few miles down the road from Peckham! The tabloids continued their onslaught. "Are they taking us for plonkers!" yelled the Daily Star.


Despite the pages of negative press coverage, Coke persisted with Dasani. Executives protested that they had been misunderstood and that the drink was not just tap water but in fact the result of a highly sophisticated process to create the purest drinking water you can get. As far as Coke were concerned, Dasani was a lifestyle drink, a drink you would want to be seen with, the source was all but irrelevant.

Dasani advert
The fiasco was complete when Dasani was contaminated
Then on Thursday 18 March there was even worse news.

Something had gone wrong at the Dasani factory and a bad batch of minerals had contaminated the water production with a potentially carcinogenic bromate. Coke admitted defeat. Immediately they withdrew all 500,000 bottles of Dasani in circulation. In just five weeks, Dasani had come and gone, arguably providing more in terms of entertainment than refreshment.

The cost to Coke is thought to run into the millions, but behind the financial loss is the possibility of an even more serious problem. After years of heady growth, sales of Coca-Cola are beginning to flatten out. Bottled water, by contrast, is now the fastest-growing of the soft drinks and Coke still need a successful bottled water for the UK and the European market.

An organisation the size of Coke, with the marketing strength that has made it the biggest drinks company in the world, is unlikely to give up easily. Astonishingly, Dasani could make a comeback one day. Asked whether the company has any plans to bring Dasani back, Patricia McNamara, New Beverages Director at coca cola GB says coyly, "we like to think it's a definite maybe".

The Money Programme, Coke's water bomb was broadcast on BBC2 at 1930Wednesday 16 June.

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