Thursday 20 February 2014

SodaStream, aikido, or how to outsmart BDS

Practitioners of aikido – a Japanese martial art-cum-philosophical approach – learn to defend themselves by utilising the attacker’s own energy and impetus. Rather than opposing the attack head-on, they skilfully channel its force, turning it to their own advantage.

I do not know if Daniel Birnbaum, the CEO of SodaStream, has ever studied the technique; or whether it was just his sharp businessman's instinct. But one thing is certain – his handling of the Scarlett Johansson/Oxfam ‘incident’ is a textbook example of aikido strategy.

Let’s review the facts:

SodaStream may have an interesting product and a wonderful value proposition. But – between us girls – it’s just a relatively small company. Nay, a very small one – for this industry. With less than half a billion dollars of sales and some 1,400 employees, SodaStream aims to compete for consumers’ wallet with the likes of Coca Cola and PepsiCo, both about 100 times larger in terms of turnover and headcount. Coca Cola is the world’s third largest brand; Pepsi is number 22; SodaStream – I doubt its brand is even in the top 10,000!

The exquisitely beautiful ScarJo and SodaStream CEO Daniel Birnbaum
The exquisitely beautiful ScarJo and SodaStream CEO Daniel Birnbaum, showcasing the company's products
To a small innovative brand, increasing awareness is everything. What’s the use of having a good product, if most potential buyers don’t know about it? They’ll continue to head for the soft drinks shelves – and buy Coke and Pepsi; in their minds, ‘beverage’ means bottles and cans, not appliances. The more SodaStream can change that perception, the more it can generate awareness of its own brand and products – the more it will sell. That’s precisely why the company had, at great cost, bought that prime-time television slot and employed Scarlett Johansson to deliver a promotional video clip. Had this been the entire story, American viewers would have been exposed to 30 seconds of commercial message delivered by a sexy young woman, telling them about this wonderful product. Some of that audience would – the company anticipated – understand, like and remember the product; and a minority of that group would eventually purchase it. SodaStream could only hope that that ‘minority of a minority’ would still be numerous enough to ensure that the several million dollars the company spent in the process would achieve a positive return. That’s how TV advertising works.

BDS militants
BDS militants
But the story did not end there. As soon as the news about ScarJo’s involvement got out, BDS militants embarked on a vociferous campaign; which of course triggered a counter-campaign; which led to Johansson’s and Oxfam’s reactions; which in turn generated a frenzy of media activity. Press releases were sent; statements were read; countless news items and op-eds were written; media correspondents were sent out to investigate and report – they even went to visit SodaStream’s 'settlement' factory; the row figured prominently in TV and radio news and commentary, etc. The social media, too, buzzed with activity. All this created an amount of publicity that Ms. Johansson’s clip could never on its own have hoped to generate.

Sure, some would argue that this was negative publicity – and hence detrimental. But that’s misunderstanding how things work in advertising. Messages that are indisputably negative may indeed be detrimental. But that was not SodaStream’s case at all. Oxfam and the BDS’ers argued their case; but so did Sodastream and Israel’s supporters. The company (and ScarJo) argued that the SodaStream offers employment to both Jews and Arabs, on equal terms; that it thus helps combat Palestinian poverty; that it turns nominal enemies into actual work colleagues. Oxfam and the BDS crowd argued that the company was... well, guilty of the crime of 'being there'. SodaStream’s CEO Birnbaum got interviewed and came across as a reasonable, caring man; the BDS’ers came across as fanatics sticking to ‘principles’ even at the cost of people getting the sack. Crucially, SodaStream’s Palestinian employees supported their employer’s narrative.

Born of its general thirst for ‘news’, the sudden media interest allowed the positive message to be put forth with at least as much strength as the negative one. A few in the audience may have bought into the negative message. Others surely sympathised with the positive one. The majority, which typically isn’t very interested in either, was attracted by the controversy – and in the process became more aware of SodaStream’s product and brand. Without the inadvertent help of the BDS’ers, SodaStream’s video clip could never generate so much awareness. In fact, to reach and capture the attention of such a large audience, the company would have had to spend not millions, but billions of dollars. In effect, the company got a huge volume of advertising – entirely free-of-charge.
Sodastream birnbaumDaniel Birnbaum the CEO must have realised this – unless, that is, he planned it all from the start. Rather than ducking the publicity and keeping ‘a low profile’, as Israeli companies have done in the past, hoping that the issue will quickly drop below the threshold of public interest, Birnbaum was happy to actively engage with the media. Just like a skilled aikido practitioner, he ‘went with’ the attackers’ impetus, turning it to SodaStream’s advantage. He granted interviews, reiterating – in perfect English and confident, relaxed manner – his arguments, not forgetting to ‘drop in’ a few words about the product’s wonderful value proposition. He was happy to organise factory tours for the journalists. In short, he ‘milked’ the situation for every drop of free publicity he could extract. Post the Oxfam-ScarJo ‘incident’, considerably more people are aware of SodaStream and its products than ever before. And augmented awareness – as any retailer knows – translates into increased sales. Don’t be surprised if SodaStream’s next financial reports show a significant bump in sales, especially in USA and Europe.
BDS activists protesting in front of the French Embassy in London.  A French court has imposed a fine on French BDS'ers for, finding them guilty of 'provocation to discrimination'.
British BDS activists protesting in front of the French Embassy in London. A French court has imposed a fine on French BDS'ers, finding them guilty of 'provocation to discrimination'.
Can this strategy be applied in other cases? You bet it can! BDS militants are by-and-large fanatics, animated by anger and hatred. Shown anything remotely resembling a target, they will charge mindlessly, like a bull irked by the matador’s red cape. With a bit of planning and intelligence, the ‘aikido’ strategy can, in many cases, turn their attack into net benefit.

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