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Food business lessons from a cola warrior

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It may be controversial to share food leadership lessons from a soda man, but then controversy fits right in with SodaStream CEO Daniel Birnbaum’s ‘How I Did It’ in this month’s Harvard Business Review.

As we students of food know well, the cola wars don’t just belong to Coke and Pepsi. They also belong to (former) New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, Center for Science in the Public Interest and The Real Bears.

Putting your feelings on soda aside for a moment, there is strategic wisdom to be had in Birnbaum’s story:

For the 2013 Super Bowl, maker of at-home soda machines SodaStream teamed up with famed creative Alex Bogusky – who, coincidentally, is also behind The Real Bears – to create a spot called “Game Changer,” which directly targeted category leaders (and big Super Bowl spenders) Coke and Pepsi.

When CBS banned the ad, SodaStream posted it on YouTube where it has been viewed over 5 million times. (Additional note: Their Super Bowl 2014 spot starring Scarlett Johansson was also just banned. It's been viewed over 2 million times.)

Some of Birnbaum’s reflections rang relevant to food entrepreneurial endeavors of all kinds. Here are a few of the fizziest:

“SodaStream had an 85% share of the ‘home carbonation business’ – an obscure industry no one knew anything about. Immediately I said that we would compete in carbonated beverage[s]… I wanted to grow our share of the $260 billion global soda business.”

Lesson: Your category may not be your category. Boston local Michael McCarthy of Budi Bar is supreme at seeing this.

"Our machine isn’t about putting bubbles into water – it’s about creating a more economical, sustainable, and healthful alternative to regular soft drinks.”

Lesson: Start With Why. If you haven’t seen Simon Sinek’s TED Talk on the subject, you must.

“One of our biggest marketing wins was something we called the Cage. It was created by an entry-level marketing person in our Belgian office [who] calculated the average number of cans and bottles thrown away… each year and then went out and collected that many – all different brands – from garbage containers. She built a giant cagelike box to hold them, demonstrating the sheer volume of waste created by traditional beverages.”

Lesson: Great ideas come from everywhere. People on top typically get the seats at the table, but as Babson Social Innovation Lab Executive Director Cheryl Kiser will tell you, truly breakthrough ideas come from reconfiguring relationships and interactions – and sharing the mic among an assortment of usual and unusual suspects. The Positive Deviance Initiative at Tufts is another group skilled in this approach.

“Digital media have completely changed the course and quantity of messaging that reaches consumers. As a brand that’s trying to build awareness in efficient ways, we need to cultivate evangelists and ambassadors rather than buying a lot of reach and frequency.”

Lesson: Smart social is power, especially in food and beverage. As ‘What Marketers Misunderstand About Online Reviews’ (also in this month’s HBR) points out: customers of independent restaurants and specialty food products tend to rely heavily on social media, word-of-mouth and sites like Yelp to make their buying decisions. Don’t overlook smart social.

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