Cellcom’s announcement was ambiguous regarding whom it was promoting solidarity with, critics said.
The move aroused the ire of some right-wing organizations, who interpreted it as a gesture of solidarity with the Palestinians. Several local municipalities in Judea and Samaria announced they were severing ties with Israel’s largest cellular provider.
Cellcom said its message was misunderstood and that it was intended to promote peace and support cooperation among its Jewish and Arab workers during the fighting.
Religious Zionist Party head Bezalel Smotrich tweeted: “Cellcom is disconnected from the people of Israel; the people of Israel are disconnecting from Cellcom.”
Within hours of the protest, many users reportedly canceled their Cellcom service. Netek, a website that helps Israelis easily unsubscribe from various networks, said it had received dozens of cancellation requests within two hours of the protest.
Cellcom’s stock on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange fell as much as 4% on the news and closed with a 2% decline.
Cellcom’s statement was a bold move that did not pay off, Tel Aviv University Coller School of Management marketing professor Danit Ein-Gar said.
“Brands have a certain pressure on them to take a stand on certain issues,” she told The Jerusalem Post. “It helps them to stay relevant and shows that they have a moral compass. This can be especially effective when a brand caters to people from specific demographics who generally agree on certain issues. However, for a company that serves people across the spectrum, it can be extremely risky to pick a side or even to address sensitive issues.”
Ein-Gar cited a 2017 Pepsi commercial in which a diverse group of protesters demanding nonspecific concessions, such as “Join the conversation,” were appeased when a police officer accepted a can of the soft drink from actress Kendall Jenner.
Pepsi thought it was projecting a global message of unity, peace and understanding, she said. But the commercial hit a deeply offensive tone with Black Lives Matter activists, who saw it as mocking their cause, and “instead of projecting diversity, the company came off as very cynical,” Ein-Gar said.
“If a company decides to take a stand, it has to be done the right way,” she said. “The timing has to be right, the message has to be clear, and it has to be aligned with values that are deeply associated with the company. Otherwise, it will likely come off as cynical, not genuine.”
SodaStream, an Israeli company that is well known for employing Jews and Arabs in its plants in the South, had more success when it made a video promoting coexistence in response to calls to boycott the company’s carbonated drinks in the US, Ein-Gar said.
“It is important to give people a reason to believe that you are being honest with them,” she said.
To repair its image, Cellcom needs to choose whether to lay low and wait for the fury to die down, or to double down on its message and embrace it even more, Ein-Gar said.
Unless the company is willing to do a lot to prove that its core beliefs and vision are singularly aligned behind that message, the latter path is much riskier and more complicated than the former, she said.