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Why You Can’t Buy Dasani Water in Britain

Why You Can’t Buy Dasani Water in Britain

This is a bottle of Dasani, Coca-Cola’s brand
of bottled water. It is basically Coke without the syrup: like most American bottled water, it is tap water that’s been purified and then had tiny amounts of minerals
deliberately added back into it. Except… not quite. This is a British Dasani bottle
from 2004, which was the first and last time that you
could ever buy Dasani water in the UK. And the story of why it failed here is one of the greatest marketing
disaster stories in history. But it wasn’t until I started researching, searching through newspapers
and TV shows from 2004, that I found that the tale is a little more
complicated than I thought. And a little more complicated
than a lot of the world thought. And it starts years earlier. Through most of the 1980s, “bottled water” was something expensive that
got ordered at fancy restaurants, and it was only by the early 90s that it had started to become a thing that
everyday people might want to buy. On Christmas Day, 1992, British sitcom
‘Only Fools and Horses’ made fun of that trend by having its main character,
lovable rogue Del Boy, sell tap water from South London as
“Peckham Spring” bottled water. It’s a slow and old-fashioned comedy
by today’s standards, and the episode is really weirdly paced, you’re two-thirds of the way through before
anyone actually starts bottling water, but because it was the Christmas Day episode
in 1992, back when most British households only had
four channels of television, that show was watched by more than
20 million people, more than a third of the entire British population. And the final joke of that episode
is that the water is contaminated by some chemical barrels that Del Boy
dumped in a local pond in the first act. It is, to be fair, a brilliant closing gag. And it’s one that stuck in the British psyche. The BBC reran the episode another five times
in the years after. It’ll have been on cable and satellite channels
many more times than that. I would guess that by 2004 when Dasani launched,
about half of the country, maybe more, could understand “Peckham Spring” as a reference, or at least remembered that time Del Boy
tried to bottle tap water. Now, under UK law, “mineral water”
is a protected term. Mineral water must come from
a certified underground spring, it must not be
chemically treated in any way, and is generally under heavy regulation. And back in 2004, the perception was that
bottled water meant mineral water. Why else would you buy it?
It’s something you can’t get at home. Over in America, though,
the home of Coca-Cola, the perception of
“bottled water” was that it was just that:
it was water, in a bottle. You were paying for the convenience,
and the taste, and it didn’t really matter whether that came
from the ground or from a water purification factory. To be fair, there are large parts of America
where the tap water does not taste or smell good, and their federal standards aren’t great,
particularly compared to Europe. And anyone who’s ever taken a vacation to
Disney World, for example, will know that the tap water around Orlando
can smell a little… sulphur-y. But in the UK, the perception was different: you were buying “mineral water”
because it was natural, [car horn]
it had been filtered through rocks for eons, it was classier and fancier and, perhaps,
healthier that what came out of your tap. That’s rubbish, of course, we have some of the safest tap water in the
world and did back then too, but advertising is powerful and the idea was that bottled water was filtered
and pure straight from the Earth, it was somehow better. Coca-Cola were trying to introduce an
American-style filtered tap water to a British mineral water market. Now, they were not lying about their water. Their marketing didn’t use
the phrase “tap water”, they preferred “purified water”,
but they weren’t lying. It says it on the back of the bottle: their process “precisely delivers
pure still water”. The public might have assumed
it was mineral water, but Coca-Cola never said that. In fact, what they had done is spend
a long time with focus groups, taste-testing and refining the mineral balance
and the flavour of the water, making a version of Dasani that was ideal
for the British palate. Dasani launched with the first stage
of what was going to be a £7million advertising campaign
on February 10, 2004. And… it went okay!
For weeks. The British public either didn’t notice
or didn’t care that it was tap water, just the way Americans don’t seem to care. There were occasional rough patches for the
launch, like shopkeepers in Buxton, a town famous for its mineral water, complaining about being forced by their contracts
with Coca-Cola to replace bottles of the local water
in coolers with Dasani. Or the regulators launching an investigation into whether Coca-Cola should be using the
word “pure” on the label. But on the whole, it went okay. A lot of articles written more recently claim
that Coca-Cola’s first blunder was copying an American Dasani slogan,
“can’t live without spunk” — which has a very different meaning
in the UK. But I don’t think that’s true. The only actual evidence I could find
of that slogan is a screenshot on one tech news web site
that liked innuendo. It looks a web designer reused some American
ad images in one part of a Flash-based web site
that almost no-one saw. No other article from the time, that I can
find, anyway, mentions that slogan at all. Y’know, the advertising was put together by
Coca-Cola’s UK division: they’re not stupid. In fact, the advertising team was probably
breathing a sigh of relief. All things considered,
the launch had been successful. And then it all went wrong, very very quickly. Exactly three weeks after launch,
March 2nd, most of the major British newspapers simultaneously
put out big stories announcing that Dasani was bottled tap water. Most of them mentioned that episode of
‘Only Fools and Horses’, and all of them made a lot of noise implying
that it was a ripoff, although perhaps they didn’t put it in quite
so few words. And back when a lot of people actually read
physical newspapers, front-page news saying that your product is
a ripoff does make a big difference to sales. But why was it suddenly news, everywhere,
at the same time, after three silent weeks? The missing piece of the puzzle is one journalist
called Graham Hiscott, who worked for the Press Association. And as he tells it, as part of a brilliant half-hour
documentary made later that year, he happened to be flipping through an issue
of The Grocer, an industry magazine, at work one day. And that’s an event that the documentary
asked him to recreate for some reason. Now, The Grocer is an ideal source for journalists
looking for the next story about a product recall or a
weird marketing strategy. And that issue of the magazine had a feature
on bottled water, and there was just one line in one article, describing Dasani as a
“mineral-enhanced treated tap water”. Which, when written so clearly, seemed odd: so Graham called Coca-Cola,
and they said, yes, Dasani is treated tap water from the mains
supply at their bottling plant: right there, in Sidcup, south London. Ten miles from Peckham, where that episode
of Only Fools and Horses was set. A few hours after that phone call, there was an article on the Press Association
newswire about where Dasani came from. Articles on the newswire don’t usually go
straight to the public: they go to other journalists first,
who can use them or adapt them. And the editors at most of the newspapers
correctly decided that, yes, this was something their readers would be
interested in. Six months earlier, when Coca-Cola was setting
out preparations for their Dasani launch, The Grocer had run a small article about it. And there’s a line in there that’s prophetic: “one senior buyer warned that some consumers
may be put off by the water’s lack of provenance”. And now, “Coke bottles tap water for a 3,000%
markup” was on the front pages. But Coca-Cola, and Dasani, soldiered on.
That didn’t kill the brand. They put more marketing budget behind it. They gave away free bottles in supermarkets. Another article in the Grocer from back then
quotes Coca-Cola’s UK marketing director: “There cannot be many people who do not know
about Dasani now… “I cannot imagine how much we would have had
to spend to get that level of awareness.” There is a theory that there’s no such thing
as bad publicity, after all. The final nail in the coffin was the contamination. They’d had a bad batch of calcium chloride
delivered right here, it’s one of the chemicals they used
in the purification process, and tests revealed that their water contained
above the legal limits of bromate, a cancer-causing chemical. There wasn’t anywhere near enough in the water
to do harm, but there was enough that
it was outside the legal limit. So within 24 hours, every unsold bottle
was recalled back here, and the shelves were empty.
Just like Del Boy, not only had Coca-Cola sold
tap water in a bottle, but they’d sold contaminated tap water
in a bottle. Dasani never returned to shops. It never launched in France or Germany,
like they were planning. And to this day, if you type “Dasani” into Google UK,
you get results about the disaster, news reports from 2004 on the first page. Coca-Cola launched other water brands,
of course, but as far as I can tell, they all look to be
spring waters or mineral waters: they’re not hooking up a purifier to the tap. Not over here. There are other folks selling
purified tap water, of course, but that’s usually the
cheap option on the shelf. Not that it matters.
It’s all just water. And I reckon Coca-Cola could absolutely have
made this work. Maybe they still could. There is a world in which one journalist didn’t
use the words “tap water”, or another journalist didn’t happen to look
at one particular article, and where the launch went just fine, and Britain got used to the fact that drinking
bottled purified tap water could be normal. After all, if it had become a popular brand, no-one would want to admit their purchases
might be questionable: it’s a lot easier to just say
“yeah, that’s fine, of course, “I know it’s tap water” than go “hang on, I’ve been paying how much for what?” and worry that you might
have been ripped off. I don’t think the Dasani disaster was inevitable. But it happened. And all that’s left, sixteen years later,
is a few bottles like this. – Shame about the people honking, wasn’t it?
– Yeah, right? – Yeah! They might’ve… and I’ll tell you what,
we timed that well, because here comes a lorry!

Reader Comments

  1. If you wish I'd drunk some of this: so do I! And you're in luck, because Ashens and I did just that over on his channel:

  2. I recall a good Family Guy joke:

    CEO of Dasani: Hey everybody, what if every bottle of Dasani water tasted like it had a nickel in it?

  3. Came from the “BA DUM DISH” video you posted 10 years ago, great channel! It takes a hugs amount of talent to be able to create content as a one take, you see other vids being so heavily edited these days and this is incredibly refreshing and genuine.

  4. I'm still astonished how the USA treats the public like animals and doesn't give them drinkable water from the faucet.

  5. Just remembering your video about compression/bitrates while I watch the quality fall to pieces as you walk in front of all of those trees in 60fps.

  6. Love this but please god why did you film it next to a busy road my adhd can't cope jfhjdhklfjwkbfjf

  7. Can we just talk about how he's never walking in the middle of the path, and many times putting one foot partially on the lawn?

  8. Well researched, well performed remembering all those facts and quotes, nicely timed to reach the factory… Mr Tom Scott, we don't deserve you.

  9. Did this all in a single take, amazing. Bottled water for me is just convenient but buying a single water bottle at a movie theater is when the price gets ridiculous

  10. I imagine Tom Scott having sex is much like this video. Accurate, heavy in eye contact, unfazed by distractions, brilliantly thought out, and loves a dramatic ending…

  11. I'm not even British. I've never even watched Only Fools And Horses. But as soon as I saw the word "Dasani" I immediately thought "Peckham Spring". That's how well publicised this was at the time. I remember the absolute hilarity on Sky News, the clip being played on a loop every 15 minutes in the news cycle. It never seemed to get old.

  12. Dude this guy is like REALLY similiar to edd china from wheeler dealers. Perhaps they were twins born of cursed jeans. But which one got the good jeans? Solid edd? Liquid edd? Solid Mike? Liquid Mike? YOU BE THE JUDGE! THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE MY FRIENDS! FIND IT!

  13. Drinking all of those minerals on a regular basis is way to much. The slightly acidic water loaded with minerals causes your bodies' pH to fluctuate and causes fatigue, amongst other symptoms. Pure water is the only thing we should be drinking. Storing food and drink in plastic has more trouble to consider as well. Dasani is basically mild poison.

  14. Although I do appreciate the skills and space required to do it all in one shot, I must say that the cars are very annoying.

  15. Dasani (Coca-Cola) strategy was to relocate their bottled water brand to Africa. It's very popular in kenya and the rest of Africa, im currently drinking it now but ill definitely won't be drinking it again.

  16. What a shame. A perfectly noice water. Now Aquafina… what a different story: Aquafina tastes of, and burns like, a coffee machine de-scaling chemical (it was an accident, someone made coffee with descaler at work :/ ).

  17. [ASMR] You're walking home and some guy keeps following you and won't stop talking about bottled water for nine minutes.

  18. I dislike the taste of bottled water compared to the tap water in Ottawa, but Dasani is probably the best tasting bottled water I've ever had.

  19. I live in Canada and most people hate Dasani, but it is often the only choice for water at most places, and in most vending machines. Whenever we go through a drive-through we always ask if they have "real water" and most of the time they say "no just Dasani".

  20. I just watched some dude talk about a bottle of water in a country I dont live in for 9 minutes….and I thoroughly enjoyed it! Great video!

  21. It's just as well. Corporations like Nestle (and Coca-Cola is likely not much different) believe water is NOT a right. They want to commoditize all water so everyone pays. In Canada at least, they get our lake water for free. I don't doubt they are already pressuring local and provincial governments to insinuate themselves into the supply chain. So, no to water as a human right, but yes to corporate subsidies. Also, the huge amount of plastic used and discarded in the process.

  22. you can buy this in SEA, which is just untreated tap water too, with a huge markup. The most expensive bottled tap water in the country but it sells here.

  23. I want to take a few moments to thank you, Tom. Not only have you continued to provide interesting stories over the years (including amazing long one-take videos like this one), but you've also resisted the trend of adding background music. I just watched this entire video and my attention was held by what you were saying. Music would have distracted me and made me want to stop. I have no idea why so many people think it's a good idea, but I'm very, very glad that you don't.

  24. "Because here…comes a lorry!" 😂
    Also Britain, don't worry; you're not missing out on much by not having Dasani. 😅

  25. Since so many folks are going nuts over this Coronavirus thing, how about doing a segment on computer viruses have evolved and the defenses against them?

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