Cottage cheese: Facebook campaign forces price cut in Israel

Cottage cheese is considered the most 'Israeli' of foods in the Middle Eastern nation. Consumers there used social media to complain about the high price of cottage cheese.

Sebastian Scheiner/AP/File
In this June 17 file photo, a consumer picks up a tub of cottage cheese inside a supermarket in Jerusalem. A high-profile Facebook protest has scored a victory for consumers in Israel: Their threats of a boycott forced a dramatic drop in the price of cottage cheese. Israeli newspapers on Thursday, June 30, carried headlines such as: "We Won," and " Cottage Cheese Victory."

In the land of milk and honey, feelings run pretty strong when it comes to the price of cottage cheese.

Surrendering to a two-week online campaign, the Israeli dairy companies that control the cheese market announced they were cutting prices by 25 percent.

The victory was a rare instance of consumers banding together through social media to force powerful companies to reduce the price of a product.

Israel's relatively small size and its tech-savvy and media-aware population enabled the protest to spread quickly. More than 105,000 people joined the Facebook group vowing to boycott cottage cheese until prices dropped. The campaign touched a nerve among Israelis concerned about rising prices and eroding salaries.

Spooked by the outrage, the three main Israeli dairy companies that control the market agreed to lower the price of a half-pound (250 gram) container to 5.90 shekels ($1.75) after it had risen to close to 8 shekels ($2.30).

"Something happened here, and it changes the rules of the game in the market," Arik Shor, a top executive at the Tnuva dairy cooperative, told Israel Radio. "We are studying it and will draw conclusions — it is an event that goes far beyond cottage."

Tnuva was first to bow to the pressure. The two smaller dairies, Strauss and Tara, followed suit.

Cottage cheese was recently voted by Israelis to be their most "Israeli" food, surpassing even the region's own falafel. The dairy product can be found in nearly every refrigerator, and the sudden price increase became a symbol of the rising cost of living in Israel.

The protest has sparked hope it will spread to gasoline, which is now over $8 a gallon ($2 a liter), electricity and other food products that also have recently skyrocketed in price.

Protest organizers say they will be moving on to other overpriced products, and consumers have expressed hope the precedent will help them target Israel's pricey real estate and automobile markets.

It also has highlighted the power of social media, with some even comparing it to the revolutions elsewhere in the Middle East.

"True, this is not Tahrir Square yet, the cottage cheese rebellion did not require us to take any real action, just to press 'like' and skip the cottage cheese shelf in the supermarket," columnist Ben Caspit wrote in the Maariv daily, referring to the Egyptian uprising. "This was inaction, not action, and it demanded no real sacrifice."

Still, Israeli newspapers on Thursday lauded the success, carrying headlines that declared: "We Won," ''Cottage Cheese Victory" and "The Israel Consumer Has Had His Say."

Experts say social networking can be a powerful tool for consumers.

"It illustrates the shifting power dynamic in the world. Social media is enabling ordinary people not only to express themselves but also to organize themselves quickly," said Andrew Nachison, a U.S.-based analyst at We Media, a digital research agency.

Ayelet Noff, founder of Blonde 2.0, an Israeli social media agency, said the protest marked a turning point in the way companies deal with crisis management in the digital age. Noff said her company has been working recently with Strauss on a global strategy campaign but did not provide consulting over the cottage cheese crisis.

"This is the first time that consumers said, 'No more! We are not going to deal with this,' and created a change," she said. "I don't think that people really realized until now that this is something that they could actually have an influence over. I think that now that consumers realize that Facebook is such a powerful force, they will use it more."

The problem is that in a market as small as Israel's, with 7.7 million people, sometimes there are no alternatives. In the case of cottage cheese, there are three different brands, but they are dominated by the huge Tnuva conglomerate.

The Facebook page of the cottage cheese boycott identifies organizers as regular Israelis who "work for a living, are raising families and breaking under of the weight of the cost of living in Israel."

"The goal is to change our consumer culture," Itzik Elrov, the Facebook group creator, told Israel Radio. "We can mark down a small V (for victory), but there is still a long way to go."

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