Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles 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.