Viewpopint / In Love, War and Marketing, Anything Goes

In 2003, Tnuva made a marketing move that left Osem Food Industries, then the proud owner of chicken-products firm Off Tov, open-beaked and battered.

In 2003, Tnuva made a marketing move that left Osem Food Industries, then the proud owner of chicken-products firm Off Tov, open-beaked and battered. Off Tov had been working for about a year to develop a line of chicken products for barbecuing, in which a million dollars had been invested. It had bought a machine to produce that grilled flavor Israelis love, it had chosen a clever brand name - Ta'im Esh (a play on the words for extraordinarily tasty and fire). Packages had been designed, the marketing chains briefed and the bird readied to fly.

A moment before the grand launch, which was supposed to leave Tnuva's Mama Off product squawking in the rear, Tnuva let loose a new Mama Off product, called - you guessed it - Ta'im Esh.

Tnuva had not invested a million in a machine, but slapped together a spice mix and was out making consumers understand exactly whose brand was the best.

The marketing world clucked and rustled. Osem VP Gazi Kaplan granted interviews left and right, accusing Tnuva of industrial espionage and demanding that it change the product name. Off Tov threatened to sue but instead of meeting in court, Osem capitulated and changed its brand name from - Ta'im Esh, which Tnuva already owned, to Mamash Esh.

Coincidence? Maybe. But every corporation worth its salt has a corporate intelligence team that collects information on the competition.

What information is out there to be collected? Executives say there are different levels of "accessible." It starts at the lowest levels: salespeople and cashiers learn from customers about pricing and other affairs at rival companies, shelf stockers at supermarkets hear about special sales at rival chains, workers get information from friends and family.

At the second level is collation of published material. Public domain stuff. At the next level, the company orders an analysis of the rival company and at the fourth level, it hires detectives.

Where will it end?

Using detectives to paw through trash blurs the boundaries between business intelligence and industrial espionage. If it's legit to scan the garbage can, then why not plant a mole in the company's sanitation department to collect the trash directly? If you're collecting documents from the office bins, then why not photocopy documents or copy computer files?

And while you're using the photocopier, why not lift the salesman's laptop right before the tender? And if you're stealing laptops, then how about breaking into the sales veep's house and borrowing his PC in the dead of night?

Steady there, maybe there's no need to break the law outright. If the company's brand manager is unmarried, why not set him or her up in a date with a hot companion, to extract information between the sweet nothings?

The boundaries between do and don't are thin and unclear, and sometimes the only thing that really matters is whether you get caught. Gazi Kaplan, by the way, already found himself tried for the very things he accused Tnuva of doing. Then the manager of Tivall, he found himself accused of hiring detectives who stole into the Soglowek plant in Nahariya in 1990, to get secret packaging and composition information on a new product. The detectives were caught red-handed inside the plant, but Kaplan got off stain-free, on the grounds that the court did not recognize the chain of responsibility.

Business information is easy to come by in Israel, says the manager of a consumer products company. Developing a new food, he says, involves so many people, from food technicians to sales staff, all of whom are privy to secrets.

When the launch nears, the advertising people become involved, sales promotion staff, the corporation organizing the launch event, and the list grows longer and longer. The company printing the packaging and brochures, the caterers, the photographers, - everybody down to the tea lady knows the slogan by heart. Any of the above can and will leak. Israelis love to leak.

When Tnuva developed its Emmi line of yogurts, it decided to fool corporate spies by code-naming its effort "Milky," hoping the competition would (wrongly) believe it was preparing a line of products to compete with that famous pudding, and devote its defensive efforts to the wrong place.

Indeed, Strauss was taken aback by the Emmi line, but it didn't make much difference to either company. Finally Tnuva replaced the Emmi yogurts with Yoplait.

But in Israeli love, war and marketing, anything goes, including lying to the retail chains in order to fool the competition.

Sometimes you don't need to hire a PI to steal information about rivals; all you need is to gain the affection of someone in the know. A top officer at a high-tech company admits that more than once, on the eve of a tender's closing, she has sat alone in the client's office - left alone with rival bids from other companies openly left on the table.

Another top high-tech personality shrugs that his company assumes all information provided in tender bids is used by the competition.

But Israel's executives don't want to risk it, and make the detectives they hire sign agreements to use only legitimate means. That may look good, but it's an evasion.

Some things, like poisoning the guard-dog and breaking into an office in the dead of night, are blatantly illegal. But there is a vast gray area in which it is far from clear what is licit "business information" and what is illegal espionage.