So to the Dasani debacle. Before I go into all that PR apocalypse stuff (which actually just boils down to lazy thinking) let’s just step back from the furore for a minute. 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 – blast it through filters, stick in a few minerals, oxygenate it – it’s got to be even better. Better than that poncey stuff they dig out of holes in the ground in the Swiss Alps. And what’s the real thing in this respect? Why, 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? Well, people don’t leave home in the morning with a flask full of tap-water on the off-chance that they might need a quick draught later in the day. Some people are savagely opposed to this failing in me, and millions of others: they perceive it as an expensive and inept way of going about things. They’re right in one respect. But bottled water is a convenience product, convenience is part of the contemporary way of living, and 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.
I wouldn’t say that what I’ve laid out above is heavyweight, earth-shattering thinking. It’s a matter of a few moments simple consideration. But it’s thinking that Dasani’s publicists didn’t get round to doing, and at the core of this whole issue, that’s why they got themselves – and their employers – in such a pickle.
Why didn’t they do it? It takes a long time to get onto a global fmcg’s PR roster. The process is rigorous to the point of absurdity. They make you jump through more hoops than Michael Jordan has stuck basketballs in. So a lot of PRs reckon that when they finally, finally get to 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 no one wants to rock the boat.
Not rocking the boat 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. That’s what PRs – indifferent PRs, actually – have taught their clients to expect. 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 scrutinize it thoroughly. They must probe into it, ask difficult questions, cut through any marketing babble and never, ever simply accept the brand’s assessment of itself at face value. They must pick it apart completely. 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, a lot of putative experts in PR don’t truly understand the nature of the media beast. The beast comprises journalists who are jaded and cynical and who are driven hard by their editors to get a good story, whatever way they can. That’s not exactly difficult to grasp. 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’s possible to devise a product position and a strategy that completely outflanks the media and sets up a wholly positive platform for the product. That platform can then be developed by spinning out all the good stories you’ve discovered whilst you’ve dug around inside the heart and soul of the brand and its business.
Dasani is tap water with a twist. That’s the essence of the product. It’s not Evian or Volvic or Perrier, just because it contains minerals. But if – as happened in this case – it is positioned as such, trouble with a capital T is just around the corner. If you create a marketing machine, and a PR strategy that effectively suggests that something is what it isn’t, you have to expect fall-out as soon as a half-way competent journalist starts digging around. Journalists like digging around in this kind of area: they’re not over-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.
Who determined Dasani’s (errant) positioning? Coca Cola in all probability. I’d reckon it then it set its advertising and marketing teams to find a creative way to communicate this. 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 do some basic thinking and point up the potential pitfalls in the positioning and its expression? If not, it should have done so. Did it have the journalistic nouse 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. Namely, 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’s being pulled over your eyes, and this 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 re-launch. This totally subverts received wisdom. But see where received wisdom landed Dasani, and 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 exemplary case of botched communications. But there’s a big investment here, and big companies are constitutionally disinclined to fritter away big investments, so it’s an unlikely option. The PR agency should offer to resign, but that’s equally unlikely, although Dasani might choose to pre-empt such an offer anyway. Whilst we’re wielding the axe, the advertising and marketing will have to go, because they communicate an unsustainable position
Next up, the brand needs to do some clear thinking, based on an assessment of the press it’s so far received. The whole case verges on disproving the “all publicity is good publicity” dictum. Some canny footwork could get round this (more of that later), and all the media noise can be turned to Dasani’s advantage. The second big assessment, in parallel with this, 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.
Aha, 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”. The way to tackle this is to take the issue of bottled water head on (see introduction), highlighting that Dasani – though qualitatively different in that its not a mineral water and doesn’t claim to be – is competitively placed in the water market.
Finally, we need a reason to buy. This is all about that dreaded market-speak enthusiasm, “emotional connection”. What it boils down to is creating a personality for the brand. One we identify with, one that tickles our fancy. One that can be dramatized and turned into news with a few well-designed stunts and some pieces of guerilla marketing that make us laugh, that 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. This is a personal analysis of the situation: Coca Cola and its PR agency might well be in violent disagreement with the assessment, so suggesting any 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.
Which sounds flippant, but it’s not. Though it’s a very serious situation for the brand, fun is actually what it has to be about if Dasani is to extricate itself from its current position. Adopting a strategically buccaneering, creative, imaginative approach to promoting the brand is now absolutely essential. Entertainment – like Dasani – is the real solution.