Bursting Out of Their Bubble: SodaStream's Controversy-ridden Path to the Big Sale

The carbonated-drink maker, bought by PepsiCo for $3.2 billion, made its name by competing hard with Coke and Pepsi - so hard that its ads faced censorship and backlash, time and again

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SodaStream's 2014 Super Bowl commerical featuring actress Scarlett Johansson.
SodaStream's 2014 Super Bowl commerical featuring actress Scarlett Johansson. Credit: AP

The purchase by PepsiCo of the home carbonated-drink maker SodaStream – for no less than $3.2 billion – is particularly ironic considering that a decade ago, SodaStream waged an aggressive campaign aiming directly at both cola giants – PepsiCo and Coca Cola.

How aggressive? So much so that SodaStream’s TV commercials had to be censored. SodaSream’s branding is based on the health wave that has hit sugary drinks in recent years and led to a considerable decline in their consumption.

Scarlett Johansson in an ad for SodaStreamCredit: DN Videos / YouTube

For example, in 2012 SodaStream put up special recycling cages at various airports around the world and in various places in city centers, including opposite Coke’s headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, to illustrate how much plastic people consume when they drink Coke. Later on, Sodastream also produced a commercial in which Coke and Pepsi bottles are shown exploding. The clip was censored when it was broadcast during the Super Bowl game, after Coke complained of copyright infringement.

In 2014, SodaStream produced a commercial starring Scarlett Johansson, which ended with the words: “Sorry, Coke and Pepsi.” That was censored too. SodaStream also mounted specific campaigns. In London, for example, artists sculpted three statues out of sugar opposite Parliament, to illustrate how much sugar a family consumes each year when they drink sugary beverages.

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Johansson was criticized for being the face of a company that has a production plant in Mishor Adumim in the West Bank, and pro-Palestinian activists called for a boycott of the actress. Johansson, who was also a good-will ambassador for the charity Oxfam, did not give in to the pressure, and said she was resigning from the organization, which attacked her for her part in the SodaStream campaign. “Scarlett Johansson has respectfully decided to end her ambassador role with Oxfam after eight years,” a statement on behalf of the actress said.

Ramon Laguarta, CEO of PepsiCo, shakes hands with Daniel Birnbaum, CEO of SodaStream, in Tel Aviv, August 20, 2018.Credit: \ AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS
The 'Game of Thrones' adCredit: Shame or Glory / YouTube

The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which calls for sanctions against Israel, and particularly against products produced in the West Bank settlements, made it a goal to attack SodaStream in the United States and Europe because of its plant in Mishor Adumim, which employed Palestinian workers. The movement claimed that due to the pressure it brought to bear, SodaStream closed its plant beyond the pre-1967 border and moved it to the Negev. The movement also claimed that thanks to its campaign, the fund of billionaire George Soros sold its stake in SodaStream.

The move that apparently created the most significant waves in recent years, which was thought up and produced from Israel, was to hire “The Mountain,” Julius Bjornsson from “Game of Thrones,” and, weighing 190 kilograms, the strongest man in Europe. Bjornsson became the star of a viral campaign by the creative agency Allenby Concept House, directed by Vania Heiman.

In the clip, 90 seconds long, Bjornsson is shown exercising while he does his supermarket shopping by lifting water bottles that look like barbells; there’s no such thing of course. SodaStream then produced a sequel, which ends with Bjornsson saying “F--- the plastic bottles.” Parts of this clip were also censored.

SodaStream’s inspiration from “Game of Thrones” gave rise to another viral clip, where a man is shown buying plastic bottles, but then has to go through a humiliating “walk of shame” taken from the series.

“SodaStream’s great success is planted deeply in its advertising and marketing strategy for years,” says Avi Zeitan, a marketing and strategic expert and a former consultant to the company. According to Zeitan, SodaStream was able to expand its market by facing off against the big players. “First and foremost, SodaStream decided to look at the broader market of the world of soft drinks instead of being a market leader in the world of soda makers. The company identified its opportunity by positioning itself as the challenger up against Coke, Pepsi and bottled soft drinks. This strategy not only gave it an advantage and differentiated it – savings on bottles, convenience in not having to carry bottles, and protecting the environment, but also placed it head to head against giant players and created a prominent place in the market,” Zeitan said.

In Europe, some people remember SodaStream as far back as the ‘70s and ‘80s with the slogan in Britain “Sparkle with SodaStream.” The company stated proudly at the time that 40 percent of British kitchens had its product. But in 2017, it was able to attain a market share of only 1 percent of kitchens in the U.K. In 2017, it grew by 13.5 percent in sales in Western Europe.

SodaStream's factory in southern Israel.Credit: \ Eliyahu Hershkovitz

In recent years SodaStream commercials have featured Mayim Bialik of “The Big Bang” fame, where it once again raised the environmental benefit and savings of using SodaStream instead of buying flavored carbonated water in single-use plastic bottles.

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