March Cover Story: A Sparkling Success

Photo by Shlomi Bernthal.

“There’s no secret formula for getting campaigns to go viral, but so far we have succeeded in finding the right balance between effective positioning and disruptive creative,” says Matti Yahav, vice president of global marketing for SodaStream (NASDAQ: SODA), the global beverage company based near Tel Aviv, Israel, with sales in more than 45 nations.

“We need to make sure that we aren’t afraid to carry out disruptive and unorthodox ideas, while staying focused on the messaging strategy,” he adds. “Our marketing has business courage, is creative, and has a sense of urgency. We are not afraid to take risks, and because of that we operate quickly, are nimble with our efforts, and learn from our mistakes.”

Yahav, who’s spent two decades as a marketing leader in various industries, joined SodaStream — a business that dates to 1903, when it was founded in England — in 2015. During his three years on the job, not only has SodaStream’s marketing earned international recognition — including Effie Europe, the Golden Drum Award, and more — but the company’s growth also has impressed, as SodaStream closed 2017 with revenue up 14.1 percent and net income up 67.3 percent over 2016 figures.

A key to that success: a repositioning of SodaStream away from the sugary cola market and into the healthier sparkling water space, while also promoting the reusability of SodaStream bottles as a green alternative to disposable plastic bottles. Yahav’s team has tackled these tasks with gusto.

“At SodaStream, we do things a little bit differently, especially when it comes to marketing,” Yahav says. “It begins with our CEO Daniel Birnbaum, a marketing guru and a leader who encourages taking risks and being bold. This approach is deeply embedded in the company’s DNA and is exemplified in our global marketing campaigns and activities.”

In October 2017, SodaStream returned to the U.S. TV space with a direct response campaign —featuring fitness celebrity Jillian Michaels — as part of this global push.

In recent years, SodaStream has repositioned its products into the
sparkling water space, reflecting consumers’ increasing desires
for healthier alternatives to colas.

‘An Amusement Park of Marketing’

Birnbaum has helmed SodaStream since 2007, when Israeli private equity investment group Fortissimo Capital Fund acquired a controlling interest in it prior to taking the company public three years later. However, SodaStream’s history stretches back to the turn of the 20th century. 

Founded in 1903 by W & A Gilbey Ltd., the famous London gin distiller, as The SodaStream Co., its first soda maker was created by George Gilbey and was a big hit with the British upper class. The company introduced flavors in 1920 — cherry and sasparilla — and by 1955, SodaStream had expanded its distribution — as well as 14 new flavors — to the masses.

In 1979, SodaStream introduced its classic Soda Maker, which was its top product for decades — and at the same time, the company launched a TV advertising campaign featuring British celebrity Tommy Cooper. The slogan — “Just like that!” — could also have been used to describe the campaign’s success, as Soda­Stream’s sales jumped by 50 percent.

In 1985, the Cadbury Schweppes conglomerate purchased SodaStream, operating it as an autonomous business. In 1991, however, SodaStream’s key distributor in Israel, Peter Wiseburgh, established his own company: Soda-Club. The Israeli business patented a new brand of machines and saw success distributing to nations like Australia and South Africa. Soda-Club’s success led to its 1998 purchase of SodaStream, becoming the world’s largest home carbonation system supplier under the SodaStream brand.

In the early part of the 21st century, SodaStream expanded its production (up to 200 flavors) and distribution points around the globe, leading to Fortissimo’s eventual purchase and the brand’s IPO in 2010. That same year, after a 30-year absence from the U.K. TV advertising market, SodaStream returned with its classic “Get Busy With the Fizzy” tagline. The company also introduced its first line of natural sodas, with no preservatives, artificial colors, flavors, or sweeteners.

The company’s expansion in recent years has been due to a focus on innovation and healthier beverages — Soda­Stream My Water, SodaStream Caps, SodaStream Free, and other products — as well as more precise, performance-based marketing tactics. That’s where Yahav comes in.

After joining SodaStream as product marketing director, he rose to his current title within six months. “I am the head of marketing and a member of the group’s senior management,” Yahav says. “The global marketing department oversees the entire life cycle of SodaStream products — from innovation to commercialization — as well as all global marketing communications.”

Prior to joining SodaStream, Yahav spent 18 years working for a “variety of iconic brands.” He adds, “I spent 7 years at Nestle Israel, a great school for any marketer. Before that, I worked as brand manager of Lego and Disney in Israel, which provided me an important introduction into building a legacy brand that continuously develops and grows over time. In these roles, I learned the fundamentals of marketing. In a sense, it was ‘Marketing 101.’ It prepped me for the role at SodaStream, which is an amusement park of marketing.”

Creating ‘Brand Heat’

It’s clear that operating the thrill rides in that “amusement park” brings Yahav great pleasure. He and the rest of the SodaStream team have completely overhauled the company’s marketing efforts. 

“In the past two years, we have launched a global marketing campaign that communicates one focal and overarching message: one reusable Soda­Stream bottle can replace thousands of disposable plastic bottles,” he says. “So far, this environmental campaign includes five integrated marketing stories wherein we found a way to address a serious phenomenon with engaging and entertaining creative.” 

Yahav continues, “As an advocate for the greener and more sustainable way of life, SodaStream spreads the word that the global plastic bottle pollution problem must be addressed and solved. We also have communicated SodaStream’s health-and-wellness message: SodaStream owners consume 43-percent more water than non-owners — and have used the sparkling water maker to cut soda and sugary drinks from their diets entirely.”

Tighter media budgets have forced the SodaStream team to focus on getting the most bang for its buck on every campaign — making performance measurement crucial. “If we were the size of Nestle, Coke, or PepsiCo, we would spend dozens of millions on media to make sure everyone saw our campaigns,” Yahav says. “Because we operate differently and don’t have these media budgets, the strategic challenge is getting views and awareness without the media spend. We are happy with our results, and our big secret has been our great content.”

The tools Yahav and his team utilize to get these key messages out to consumers run the gamut of omnichannel marketing media options. “The bottom line, though, that we’ve found is no performance-based marketing is worth anything unless an organization has killer content,” he says. “With this understanding, Soda­Stream puts most of our effort into content creation, which we then leverage in the most relevant way to our consumers, on the most relevant platforms.”

Jillian Michaels SodaStream
SodaStream made an impressive return to the U.S. with a direct response
TV-centered campaign in October 2017, featuring fitness superstar Jillian Michaels.
The campaign built on the company’s global repositioning into the sparkling water market. 

SodaStream’s marketing starts with video. “Video content is king at Soda­Stream,” Yahav says. “It is the core of each campaign, the story itself. Around this video content, we build layers — PR-related activities or digital executions — to push forward our sustainability message. Because of the embedded layers and integrated activities, the content of the video must be engaging and entertaining. Because we do not have the marketing budgets of bigger brands, we must be more disruptive and attention-grabbing with our creativity.” 

But unlike other marketers who may be wary of creating long-form video content, Yahav and the SodaStream team don’t shy away from it. “We believe that if a brand’s story is good enough, and told in a creative enough way, the length of content isn’t an issue,” he says. “This is why we are not afraid to create longer videos. Our brand message is clear, and we always try to bring a fresh and entertaining angle to this story.”

Online video has become the driving force for SodaStream — but only thanks to associated efforts to drive consumers to that video content. “We use creative digital tools and PR-driven content to launch disruptive videos, and we have secured hundreds of millions of views, hundreds of thousands of shares, and — even more importantly — brand heat and love,” Yahav says.

He adds, “Our digital strategy is very focused: for most of our distribution, we rely on YouTube and Facebook, because we can reach most of our target audience in the most effective way. We are optimizing our consumer journey within those platforms.”

Public relations also plays a crucial role for SodaStream. “We really believe in the power of public relations — both to give our marketing efforts extra legs, and also to continue the brand heat and momentum,” Yahav says. “For all of our campaigns, we try to isolate what the PR story is, and the ways to leverage it.  What makes us unique is that we not only create campaigns and videos that people like to watch and share, but we create content that has a pulse on current events — in both pop culture and society.”

This idea follows from another concept behind SodaStream’s marketing, gleaned from Yahav’s — and the company’s — experience. “Something that we’ve learned through the years is that focusing solely on the functionality of a product will yield a less successful campaign,” he says. “Consumers want a chance to embrace a company’s personality and culture. Shifting our communications to a content-heavy, storytelling approach was a great success and lesson learned for SodaStream.”

With that experience, it’s no shock to learn that Yahav’s in-house team takes a leadership role in each campaign — crucial given SodaStream’s global scope and the array of partners it works with in various markets.

“We are unique in that most of our ideas and stories are initiated in-house with the global marketing team,” he says. “Once we land on a concept, we work with many talented individuals and agencies across the globe to refine these ideas and create the campaigns which we bring to the public. Each campaign has been different, even with its core environmental and health message.” 

SodaStream’s “Shame or Glory” campaign debuted with a 3-minute
online video in late 2016. The video earned more than 100 million views,
a number of advertising awards — and the ire of those working in the
bottled water space.

Shame, Glory … and Jillian

When talking about recent successes, Yahav reaches back to his earlier comment about selecting the “most relevant and effective platforms” for each campaign. He mentions SodaStream’s “Shame or Glory” campaign, which debuted with a three-minute online video in November 2016. 

“Our award-winning global ‘Shame or Glory’ campaign is a great example of an integrated marketing execution,” he says. “The core of this campaign is viral video that gained more than 100 million views — with almost no media spend — ­accompanied by local TV in some markets, a comprehensive influencers program, and a PR blitz.”

That said, “Shame or Glory” — a bold, yet amusing, take on SodaStream’s value to both consumer and environment — didn’t come without its challenges.

“When we launched the campaign, we received no less than six cease-and-desist letters from organizations like the International Bottled Water Association demanding that we take down the ad,” Yahav says. “The letters claimed that ‘Shame’ defamed the bottled water ­industry.”

But the SodaStream team was unbowed. “Perhaps other companies would have backed down,” Yahav adds. “Instead, our marketing strategy was to go on the offensive, by refusing to be silenced about our truth. Ultimately, this opposition gave ‘Shame or Glory’ leverage, and our video created a worldwide public debate.”

Yahav says SodaStream’s repositioning as a sparkling water brand has been the company’s biggest recent challenge in the U.S. market, as well.

“When we initially launched in the U.S., we were marketed as a do-it-yourself (DIY) home-soda maker — a different and better way to do cola. In 2015, we pivoted and focused on being a sparkling water brand — now we are the largest sparkling water brand in the world by volume. However, alerting consumers to this healthier shift while maintaining our identity as SodaStream was a challenge.” 

He says the company’s most recent U.S. direct response campaign, launched last October and featuring the fitness icon Michaels, has been its most successful effort in promoting the shift in the U.S.

“Our most recent U.S. campaign, in addition to the global campaigns, directly addresses this new positioning and how SodaStream’s sparkling water can help consumers quit their sugary soda habit,” Yahav says. “It’s a message we’re delivering to offline and online audiences and it’s one that needs to resonate.”

The campaign highlights Soda-Stream’s hydration and health-and-wellness benefits. “Using Jillian Michaels as a spokesperson has proven to be tremendously effective and successful,” Yahav says. “With more and more consumers turning away from sugary sodas, we’re excited to continue the momentum with this campaign, as it directly shows how SodaStream sparkling water makers are a tool to significantly reduce the sugary soda intake in your diet by offering a fun and effortless way to accomplish that.”

The campaign has also been successful in mixing various media options. “We have used programmatic TV media buying, in addition to digital marketing, with a focus on mobile,” Yahav says. “The effect of our efforts is clearly visible from both our online and offline sales in the U.S. following this campaign. We are continuing the momentum and continue to invest in these platforms while constantly optimizing our performance.”