Man with a purpose

Taoufik Mathlouthi started Mecca-Cola two years ago as a protest against US foreign policy. Now, the French-Tunisian entrepreneur believes he can become the world’s second highest selling cola brand.

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By  Robbie Greenfield Published  April 7, 2005

|~||~||~|RNME: How was Gulfood [the region’s largest F&B trade show, which took place in February] for you?

Taoufik Mathlouthi: It’s a very important operation for me, with regards to public relations and meeting with distributors. It was also the first test of the impact and the fame of the brand after the worldwide media campaign of 18 months ago. For me, the show was helpful to see whether Mecca-Cola is just a passing phenomenon or a legitimate, established brand. I now have the assurance that our brand is for real, and we now have results to back-up the claim that our product is the third-rated cola in the world, both in sales and volume.

Was the company founded on anti-capitalist principles?

No, not at all. I am capitalist! It is an anti-American foreign policy, anti-Zionist company set up to fight these two hegemonic policies and to fight against globalisation. We are an anti-mondialist company, if you will.

So are you specifically anti-Bush?

Yes. We certainly have nothing against the American people. We feel they are victims of their own administration, and manipulated by it. We are against Bush and his team of people who have no morals — they are fundamentalists! For me, they are the same as Bin Laden. Both are fighting for the name of God, and both are fighting in an extreme way. I have read a lot of books about Bush, including Bush’s Secret World, written by a French reporter called Eric Laurent — he described the psychology of Bush and his team, especially Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld and Rice. These people are the wolves — they are so dangerous because they have no limits. They are truly a danger to humankind — because they can declare war at will, use any kind of weapons and completely disregard the consequences. How can we, as citizens of other countries, respect them if they don’t respect UN resolutions and international laws?

Is Mecca-Cola now a legitimate challenger to Pepsi and Coca-Cola?

At the beginning it was a reaction, a wave of feeling that captured a lot of people’s imagination all over the world, not just Muslims. We now feel that a lot of people are proud to have a new brand, totally comparable to Coke and Pepsi in quality and design.

Are you still receiving criticism for using the name ‘Mecca’ in the brand, with regards to some people’s religious sensitivities?

Absolutely not. We receive no criticism whatsoever from any Muslim organisations or peoples. I don’t believe that this was ever a serious argument in the first place and it has not been an issue for some time.

Is the style of the brand a deliberate imitation?

It’s a provocation. In the beginning, Coke ignored us, but now they are getting concerned: we are getting more and more market share in several countries.

Which stores are stocking M-C in the Middle East, and are you stronger in small grocers or hypermarkets?

As we’re such a comparatively new brand, it is difficult to achieve effective distribution. We’ve been in the region for two years whilst our competitors have a minimum 25 years experience here, so it is problematic. I feel we are definitely making steps in the right direction though; we are currently restructuring our network distribution and have overcome initial problems that we had in getting Mecca-Cola into Carrefour.

Now you can find Mecca-Cola in Deira, Shandaghah and Ajman Carrefour stores. We’re starting to get well represented across the board in the region, though we like to give priority to groceries. As such, our products are available in hypermarkets, supermarkets like Spinneys and Union Co-operative, and smaller stores too.

Where are your strongholds?

Our best market share is in Yemen — we have 22% of the market there. In Algeria, we have 18.5%. In the GCC, the challenge comes from Pepsi, not Coca-Cola, because the Arab league boycotted Coke so it has no strong position here. Pepsi are very well established in the Middle East. They have a very long history and are very powerful, whereas we are just starting out. They can really put the pressure on us: they can lower prices and offer promotions and giveaways.

In the GCC, our market share is around 3%, which is still very small. But the key is the brand is well known. When you ask people on the streets, everyone will know it. 4-5% will say they have had it at least once. 3% will say they only drink Mecca-Cola. People are asking for Mecca-Cola. Unfortunately, we have a lack of communication and distribution here. My ambition for the Gulf is to grow the market share to 7% by 2008.

Do you find that the GCC, particularly Dubai, has more acceptance of American culture?

Yes, of course. 80% of the population here are expats. They are not concerned by my concerns, but that’s OK. The real problem is that the major brands fight dirty.

For example, it’s very hard to find empty cans: the major brands bought up all the production for one year in advance, so I have orders I can’t meet. We have a lot of difficulty in all raw materials because the big players in the market undercut us.

Is the Arab community particularly receptive to you?

Very much so. They are our base, alongside Pakistan and Bangladesh. Our third major market area is in Pakistan. I have just been in Jakarta and I signed an agreement with a promotions company to establish five bottling plants and to produce 700 million litres each year. The target of the contract is [to produce] two billion litres/year.

You have announced plans to open a bottling plant in Jebel Ali. When will it open, what size will it be and how will it help to improve distribution in the Middle East?

The plant will open at the beginning of 2006 and it will significantly enhance both our production and distribution capabilities. It will include two lines, a PET line with a capacity of 24,000 bottles per hour and a can line with a capacity of 18,000 per hour. This will facilitate the expansion of our portfolio: we have just launched Mecca-Aqua, our mineral water brand, at Gulfood, but there will be considerable scope to branch out once the plant is up and running.

Are you focusing particularly on the GCC countries?

We focus everywhere, but with special emphasis on the GCC. Dubai is now our world head office. It is crucial to have a strong presence here; people are coming from all over the world. It’s a central business hub.

What are your plans for Europe?

In Germany, France, Spain and Belgium we are doing very well. Last year we produced 36 million litres in Europe and we were the second brand after Coca-Cola in France – before Pepsi. This year that figure has grown to 42 million litres.
This is good progress and a clear message to all those who claimed our sales would suffer through lack of advertising. In part, this is down to the anti-mondialist European movement that we sponsored. They took Mecca-Cola as a symbol because it’s a symbol of freedom.

Do you do any TV advertising?

Not much. We did something with Al Jazeera during Ramadan, but it was useless and very expensive. To have a very successful campaign we had to be on at least 12 channels and the budget for one month was around US $2.5 million, which is huge for us.

We prefer to sponsor movements that symbolise our product and advertise through word of mouth. This is in line with our general philosophy. We’ve changed our tag-line from, ‘No more drinking stupid’ to ‘Drink with commitment’, because English people reacted very badly to that first one. This is our appeal though — we seek to be controversial. People were asking me: ‘Why Mecca? Why stupid?’ I say stupid because people who say they are against American foreign policy are endorsing the government when they buy Coca-Cola. Even if it’s just 0.01% of their purchase, they are helping to pay for the F-16s that kill people in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine and everywhere else.

How do you see the long-term struggle with Coke and Pepsi developing? What happens when Mecca-Cola ceases to be the ‘alternative’ brand and becomes as large as the corporations it is competing against?

Well, first of all I would say we are not struggling with any major brand; we have our own market segment that is completely out of their reach. We have never said that we refuse to become multinational just because we are alternative.

When you talk about being alternative, you also talk about services, quality and size: if we remain in that alternative ‘niche’ bracket we will eventually be crushed. That is not our aim. We are certainly not scared at the prospect of development; in fact, we embrace it. We are firm in our conviction that we are building the first multinational company that is based on human consideration. We use our profit to pursue different objectives to the competition, and this is what sets us apart. They work for the capital; we work for welfare and humanism by using our profit for noble causes.

Where do you see Mecca-Cola in five years time?

If we can acquire the necessary cash to develop, around US $150-200 million, we truly believe that we can become the second brand of cola in the world, ahead of Pepsi. We know the potential we have.

We are negotiating with banks for the necessary funds, but we want to keep our freedom because some banks don’t agree with the donation of 20% of our net profit to charity. They operate on a purely business level whereas we have other priorities. So it is more difficult for a company like Mecca-Cola to find investors because our political and charitable obligations must be considered.

Will there ever be a stage when you look to downplay the political image of Mecca-Cola?

Perhaps at some point, yes, but this is a long way down the line. Even if we do review Mecca-Cola’s political message, our charitable contributions will be maintained. I can assure you of one thing, Mecca-Cola will be around for a long time. ||**||

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