oxfam international

Scarlett Johansson will not solve SodaStream's troubles

January 30, 2014: 12:15 PM ET

A geopolitical controversy surrounding the soda machine company's manufacturing facility in the West Bank may fizz just a bit louder than Johansson's Super Bowl ad star power.

By Elizabeth G. Olson

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FORTUNE -- For many fans, the Super Bowl spectacular is as much about the marketing ingenuity on display as it is about the championship football game itself.

With an audience of 100 million people or more, advertisers are hungry to magnify their corporate presence and boost their sales, but it's always been a hit-or-miss proposition. Companies have had wild successes and embarrassing blunders, and this year the limits will be tested once again as SodaStream International tries to see how far a memorable ad can help it move beyond -- or around -- its troubles.

In its commercial, actress Scarlett Johansson adds sparkle to the Israel-based company's tutorial on how to make fizzy beverages at home. Hiring Johansson as its global brand ambassador is a switch in tone from the company's spot last year, which showed soda bottles exploding each time a SodaStream machine user made a carbonated beverage.

Even that was mild compared to the more abrasive ad SodaStream (SODA) proposed, which identified competitors Coca-Cola (KO) and Pepsi (PEP) by name, but was rejected as disparaging by CBS, the network that broadcast the 2013 match-up. This year's Super Bowl commercial is drawing attention to the company again, and not all in a good way, with SodaStream critics complaining that Johansson is lending her image to a company that maintains a manufacturing facility in the West Bank and, thus, legitimizes Israel's policy towards its settlements. Johansson recently resigned from her role as an ambassador for charity Oxfam International, which had criticized Johansson's relationship with SodaStream.

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Rashid Khalidi, professor of Arab studies at Columbia University, said the company's facility there contributes to "the illegal occupation, colonization, and the attendant dispossession of the Palestinian population in which SodaStream and similar companies play an integral part."

SodaStream's presence in the West Bank has drawn demonstrations and a call to boycott its products, but its chief executive Daniel Birnbaum vigorously disputes his critics, arguing that Palestinian workers are treated, and compensated, the same as their Israeli coworkers. It is unclear how much, if any, of the protestors' views are affecting SodaStream's sales, but the company's fortunes have been foundering in recent weeks as revenues have been rocky.

So the stakes going into the Super Bowl are high, with SodaStream laying out an estimated $4 million for its commercial appearance in the game's fourth quarter.

"Whenever you are in the Super Bowl, with the sheer reach of a 100-million audience, whatever you do -- good or bad -- has an enduring effect," says Derek Rucker, a marketing professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management.

"By virtue of being there, it says you are a pretty big player," notes Rucker, who tracks and rates Super Bowl ads for the annual Kellogg Super Bowl Advertising Review. "But it's not just appearing at the Super Bowl, it's what's in your message."

Commercials like Budweiser's (BUD) with Clydesdale horses have been enduring hits, but other companies have missed the mark. In 2011, Groupon (GRPN) tried some offbeat humor about Tibet, and the ad was considered insensitive to the Tibetan people and the company later had to apologize. GoDaddy, the Internet services company, also ran into trouble when viewers took issue with its racy ads.

But three years ago when Chrysler aired its "Imported from Detroit" ad, "it was part of an entire package and helped set the stage to reintroduce the brand," Rucker says.

Companies who have spent big on the Super Bowl but flailed include BlackBerry (BBRY), which drew poor marks last year for a message that Rucker saw as vague and unclear.

"With 100 million people watching, you need to have a consistent message," he said. "It only takes a handful to call out an ad."

SodaStream's product is popular, but its difficulty is how, or even whether, to address the simmering controversy of where it manufactures some of its units. It also has manufacturing plants in other countries. Birnbaum notes that its first Super Bowl advertisement, in 2013, "was focused on increasing awareness for our brand," by showing "how using SodaStream is good for the environment, as it eliminated the waste from the production, transportation, and garbage-dumping of a billion cans and bottles every day."

The SodaStream ad that CBS rejected got 5 million views on YouTube, and Birnbaum -- who honed his marketing chops during a stint as general manager for Nike in Israel -- says he considers the ads a good investment in building the brand's awareness and winning more shelf space in stores.

This year's ad initially mentioned its competitors, Coca-Cola and Pepsi, although 2014 Super Bowl broadcaster Fox required SodaStream to drop the reference. But the commercials do not address the manufacturing issue, and if the ads are not coupled with a long-term strategy, that could hinder the company's efforts, says Steve Parker, Jr., founder and president of Levelwing, a digital marketing company that has worked on six Super Bowl campaigns.

"The Super Bowl can be a great launch pad, but it's not good to put all the eggs in one basket," he says. "If a company does not have plans beyond that point, people will forget. It's like launching a rocket; you have to know where you are launching it and how it is going to get there."

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SodaStream "will get a pop from its ad, but it needs a long-term strategy that uses Scarlett Johansson -- but not only her -- and not ignore the geopolitical stuff."

Nick Pahade, chief executive of Poptent, a video crowdsourcing company, likens SodaStream's predicament to that of Hyundai, the South Korean car manufacturer that was once derided for quality issues.

"But the company now has great products," he says, "and they are combining that with a spot that pokes fun at themselves in a clever way, and that's a great combination."

So far, there is little indication that SodaStream wants to take on the geopolitical controversy, with Birnbaum swatting away critics, calling them "misinformed people who spread lies to promote their political agenda" and maintaining that SodaStream "represents the future of the carbonated beverage industry."

"All of the big soda companies know this very well," he argues, "and our 2014 campaign, beginning with the Super Bowl, will only strengthen the realization that their businesses, already in trouble in the U.S., really have no choice but to offer their consumers the choice of home soda."

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