Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Who moved my Cottage Cheese 2.0 ?

The world of social media has its upsides and its downsides and recent events in Israel prove that you never know which side is coming next!  We have all been witness to major social media campaigns serving uprisings in the Middle East about freedom, the fabric of democracy and human rights, while acknowledging the critical role that social media has to play in the role of disaster relief and recovery. More and more Corporate Social Responsibility Reports are now online, and with them, the link to Facebook pages, Twitter accounts and Linked In conversations. Just recently, I wrote about the digital advances of the Strauss Group in Israel whose recent CSR report publication was digital, facebooked and launched with a live-streamed stakeholder engagement discussion.

I am not sure that Strauss really expected their conspicuous (and earnest) commitment to dialog and engagement to be put to the test so quickly in what has become one of the almost unheard-of protests by the normally fairly lethargic Israeli public. What's it all about? You may find this hard to believe.. but the issue that has engaged (at the last count) 93,269 consumers in a Facebook campaign is all about... the price of cottage cheese! 

No, it's no joke. The Israeli public is  finally moving out of its comfort zone and leveraging 2.0 tools of the day (in some very creative ways) to make their voice heard in a campaign which has become the talk of the nation in just a few short days and which may well be the first iconic 2.0 consumer Israeli pushback.

Cottage cheese in Israel is one of the most basic elements of the local diet with Israelis spending almost half a million $ a year on the stuff. The price of cottage cheese has risen by 39% in since 2008 and the price that sparked the protest is close to 8 shekels ($2.33) for a 250 gram carton. See this article written for Bloomberg News for more background. The protesters argue that cottage cheese is a staple and should be priced accordingly. 

The major cottage cheese producers in Israel are Tnuva who holds 70% of the market, Strauss Group and Tara. Both   Tnuva's Facebook Page and Strauss's Facebook Page have been inundated with comments, questions, complaints, photos and even a video clip with a Cottage Song comparing the price of cottage cheese to taking out a mortgage. Now it's cottage cheese, tomorrow it's your house! 

The subject has been on the daily news and was the highlight of, coincidentally and perhaps unfortunately, a high-profile annual Food Conference taking place just this week, at which the big shots representing all the relevant food manufacturers were present. The Minister of Finance may not have clicked "like" on Facebook but he certainly backed the consumers' corner, threatening to reduce protection on the local milk market and allow foreign exports, or even bring back price control on these products. The manufacturers, however, are seeking joint solution - farmers, regulators, retailers and all those involved in the supply chain - claiming they are being witch-hunted on price drivers which are not entirely their responsibility. Consumers are not convinced. The call to boycott cottage cheese throughout the month of July continues and 200 more people just "liked" the Facebook campagin in the time it has taken me to write these few lines.

What can we learn from all this and where's the sustainability message?

Consumer 2.0 is alive and kicking. If the most apathetic consumer in the Western Hemisphere is getting riled about cottage, then we can truly believe that consumer 2.0 is here to stay and that every consumer issue will now be an Issue 2.0. The full arsenal of social media tools are available to Consumer 2.0's and no manufacturer has any corner to hide in. As I have said in the past: either you are transparent, or you are transparent. 

If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. Not much point in declaring that you are committed to dialog if you do not engage when the issues get scary. It's one thing to open up your "good news" corporate responsibility report for debate, and seek feedback, as many companies do. It's another to respond promptly and pertinently to consumers when they voice a concern about the way you are conducting your core business and its effect on them. Both Strauss and Tunva have responded on their Facebook pages, in alignment with the Messages at the Top of their Companies, which are not quite satisfying the angry protesters, but they are nevertheless responses, and for that, they should be commended.  

When the market's don't self-regulate effectively, regulation happens. Here we see a beautiful case study in market dynamics. Sooner or later, someone wakes up. If the businesses involved do not skillfully manage this cottage cheese situation, the government will do it for them. What's preferable? Concede the battle (partially at least) in order to win the war, or have the government decide for you and restrict your trading practices indefinitely?  I can think of many who would opt to take control rather than be controlled. Before anyone moves your cheese, you better be sure you move it yourself.

There's opportunity in crisis:  The cottage cheese scenario an example of a situation in which a smart company can win major reputation (and business) points, By responding humbly, by accepting accountability, by taking practical steps to address a situation which is clearly high on the materiality stakes, the protest can be broken and a competitive edge can be secured. Fear of precedents should never immobilize real action. However, the realization that there is already a precedent (in the way consumers are finding their Voice 2.0) should lead to new ways of thinking and responding. What we need is Response 2.0 to Consumer 2.0 about Issue 2.0 in the battle of Cottage Cheese 2.0.

In the meantime, maybe I will start a Facebook campaign to make ice cream a basic human right.

elaine cohen, CSR consultant, Sustainability Reporter, HR Professional, Ice Cream Addict. Author of CSR for HR: A necessary partnership for advancing responsible business practices Contact me via www.twitter.com/elainecohen  on Twitter or via my business website www.b-yond.biz/en  (BeyondBusiness, an inspired CSR consulting and Sustainability Reporting firm)

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