What’s wrong with tap water?
I drink it every day. And if someone can give some good old British water a bit of a hi-tech going over, it’s got to be even better. Better than that poncey stuff they dig out of holes in the ground in the Alps. And what’s the real thing in this respect? Why, Coca-Cola’s Dasani.
I’d buy it. Not that I’m stupid (or maybe I am). I know it’s council pop with frills on top, but you see, bottled water is something I buy. So do lots of people.
Why? Bottled water is a convenience product, and since convenience is part of the contemporary way of living, we have to pay for it. After all, those bottles don’t just appear on the shelves by magic. Rightly or wrongly, it’s the way the world works.
It’s hardly heavyweight, earth-shattering thinking – just a few moments’ simple consideration. But those are a few moments that Dasani’s publicists didn’t get round to, and that’s why they got themselves – and their employers – in such a pickle.
Why didn’t they do it? Well, it takes a long time to get onto a global brand’s PR roster. During the rigorous process they make you jump through more hoops than Michael Jordan has stuck basketballs in. Many PRs reckon that when they finally make the top table, they’ve got to mind their manners, eat what they’re given, pass the port in the right direction, and – most importantly – never give the host a hard time. After all, he’s the one who pays for the meal ticket. These are hungry days for the PR industry, and nobody wants to rock the boat.
That means you dutifully file the memos, attend the meetings, deliver the reports, create the press pack, cut up the cuttings, answer the phone and commission the media analysis. Blah blah. It’s what indifferent PRs have taught their clients to expect, but frankly a well-trained work experience office monkey could do it. Agencies should be ashamed of themselves. They should be delivering more than monkey-time, particularly because they’re not being paid peanuts. Clients deserve – and must be provided with – a lot more.
PRs must challenge the brand. They must scrutinise it thoroughly, probe it, ask difficult questions, cut through marketing babble and never, ever accept the brand’s assessment of itself at face value. They must pick it apart completely.
And they have to do this from a particular point of view, and with a very particular understanding. They are PRs. They deal with the media. They should know how the media ticks, what journalists get up to, and why. Too often, they don’t. No, really.
Ridiculous as it sounds, many putative PR experts don’t truly understand the nature of the media beast. They don’t understand that they are dealing with jaded and cynical journalists who are driven hard by their editors to get a good story, whatever way they can. Often, good stories are very bad news for brands.
The PR’s absolute responsibility is to approach the product with all the journalistic cynicism it can muster. That way, it becomes possible to devise a strategy that completely outflanks the media and sets up a wholly positive platform for the product.
Dasani is tap water with a twist. That’s the essence of the product. Containing minerals it doesn’t mean it’s Evian, Volvic or Perrier.
But if, as happened in this case, it is positioned in this way, trouble with a capital T is just around the corner.
If you create a marketing machine and a PR strategy effectively suggesting something is what it isn’t, you have to expect fallout as soon as any half-competent journalist starts digging around. Journalists are not overly keen on big companies, and companies don’t come much bigger than Coca-Cola. All the more delight for the journalist in finding its feet of clay.
So who determined Dasani’s errant positioning? In all probability, Coca-Cola.
I reckon the company came up with a plan and then set its advertising and marketing teams to find a creative way to communicate the position. Last of all, if my experience is anything to go by, it pulled in the PR company. At which point you have to ask the questions: did the agency point up the potential pitfalls in the positioning and its expression? If not, it should have done so. Did it have the journalistic nous to do so in the first place? If not, it shouldn’t be selling itself as a PR service. If it did do the thinking, did it challenge the brand, or did it look on the whole thing as a fait accompli and go with it anyway? In which case, did it advise the client of the dangers and work out how to deal with the flak when it inevitably started flying around?
This highlights a key point that I have struggled for years to communicate to brands: the press – managed correctly by PRs who know their business – has the power to make a brand famous. But it also has the power to utterly undermine a product.
No amount of advertising in the world can counter the authoritative news story that says the wool is being pulled over your eyes and the product is dodgy. Because press is so important in this respect, the PR should be the very first person on the case when a brand sets out to launch or relaunch. This totally subverts received wisdom… but see where received wisdom landed Dasani – it doesn’t look that wise after all.
There are a number of options open to Coca-Cola and its PR agency. First, Dasani could be dumped, written off as a lost cause and simply consigned to the marketing text books as an exemplar of botched communications. But there’s a big investment here. The PR agency should offer to resign, but that’s equally unlikely, although Dasani might choose to pre-empt such an offer anyway. While we’re wielding the axe, though, the advertising and marketing will have to go.
Next up, the brand needs to do some clear thinking. The whole case verges on disproving the “all publicity is good publicity” dictum. Some canny footwork could get round this, and all the media noise can be turned to Dasani’s advantage. The second, parallel assessment is to work out where the brand could stand, and how it could get there.
Because of the press it’s received, Dasani is now, officially, the Del Boy of the bottled water world, on account of the Peckham connection and the famous plotline from Only Fools and Horses. It’s also firmly fixed in the public’s mind as tap water plus. The water company has taken the whole thing as a huge slur on its purifying processes.
That can readily be turned on its head – “Thames water is so good it’s the only water we’d choose to base the product on; you don’t have to sit with your mouth clamped to a mountain spring to get real quality”. Add in a bit of good old “British water is best” tub thumping, and we’ve definitely got something going.
But what about the 3000% mark-up? Well, you could cut the price, but people would end up saying “you’ve just dropped the mark up to 2000%, so it’s still a rip-off”. So tackle this by taking the issue of bottled water head on, highlighting that Dasani – though not actually being a mineral water – is competitively placed in the water market.
Finally, we need a reason to buy. This is all about that dreaded marketing-speak “emotional connection”, but it boils down to creating a personality for the brand. It has to be one we identify with, one that tickles our fancy. One that can be dramatised and turned into news with a few well-designed stunts and some pieces of guerrilla marketing that make us laugh and entertain us. Ironically, this should be based on directly confronting the critics and selling a certain kind of street integrity. What kind of stunts?
Well this is where, regrettably, I feel duty bound to draw these lengthy proceedings to a close. Coca-Cola and its PR agency might well be in violent disagreement with my assessment, so suggesting further steps is futile. But, if they do decide to follow this kind of line, I’d not wish to spoil the fun for them.
It sounds flippant, but it’s not. Though the brand is in a very serious situation, fun is actually what Dasani has to be about in order to extricate itself from its current position. Adopting a strategically buccaneering, imaginative approach to promoting the brand is now absolutely essential.
Entertainment – like Dasani – is the real solution.