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Shopping With Osama bin Laden: Coke, Pepsi and Nestle Mollified Al Qaeda Chief

Management at Coca-Cola (KO) and PepsiCo (PEP) are no doubt breathing sighs of relief that Osama bin Laden favored Coke and Pepsi "equally," according to Bloomberg. Bin Laden's people:

... bought bulk food orders, chose major brands and equally favored Pepsi and Coke, neighbors and a local shopkeeper said.
Bin Laden's protectors "always bought the best brands -- Nestle milk, the good-quality soaps and shampoos," Qaisar said. "They always paid cash, never asked for credit."
One of bin Laden's followers once declared "The Americans love Pepsi Cola, but we love death." How times have changed. When he was killed, bin Laden was living like a Florida retiree: large house in a gated community, close to the best golf course in the country, buying only premium brands, and his people hated cricket (or at least the local boys who played it in a nearby field).

There is a serious side to this, which U.S. brand managers ought to keep in the backs of their minds as they market their products abroad. Ultimately, even the most hardened radical can be mollified (even if only in part) by their favorite brands. And even the most American of brands can worm their way into the hearts of the most anti-American people.

This is important because -- as I've noted before -- Western companies are reaching out to Muslim markets and capitalism has a role to play in the normalization of life in Arab societies that have been distorted by decades of dictatorship and Islamic fundamentalism. It is not a coincidence that bin Laden favored Nestle (NESN) products, for instance, as that company is the second-most "Muslim friendly" brand in the world according to a ranking by Ogilvy Noor, the unit of ad agency Ogilvy & Mather that focuses on marketing to Muslims.

Other Western brands making inroads with Arabs include the FIFA World Cup in Qatar, F.C. Barcelona and News Corp. (NWS), which recently launched a new cable news channel for Saudi Arabia.

With those inroads comes a (small) Western backlash, of course. Can you imagine how embarrassed Pepsi would have been if bin Laden had chosen it as the choice of his new generation? And Coke may once again have to spend some time battling the false rumor that gum arabic, an ingredient in cola, is made largely by a Sudan-based company owned by the bin Laden family.


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