The #MaggiMuddle is one of the biggest PR disasters for a company in the social media age.
Trust, betrayal of nostalgia, public perception and brand value were all at stake, yet the Nestle CEO’s response on Friday was a classic case of a little too less, a little too late. It was wimpish, dishonest, lacked empathy, bordering on utter disregard for the Indian sentiment.
The first notice which Nestle India got for unhealthy food practices and deceitful labelling was in March 2014. That is 15 months back. In July last year, Nestle appealed regarding the issue and Maggi was sent for testing in the Kolkata Central Food Laboratory, a NABL accredited government lab. In April this year when the results found high levels of lead and MSG, Nestle did not even respond the FDA warnings.
Nestle may have assumed that the government would be indifferent, that the media would move on, and the controversy would die a natural death. They were wrong.
Nestle’s Poor PR Machinery
The startling findings of lead and MSG in Maggi was confirmed in April 2015, the mainstream media picked up the issue, a month later, on May 20th.
There was a one month window for the food giant to get its act together.
They could’ve recalled the product voluntarily (Nestle did that in USA in 2014 over one complaint of incorrect packaging of Häagen-Dazs ice-cream), and come clean saying that the safety of Indians takes precedence over everything else.
1) They blocked all lines of communication with consumers. For more than a fortnight, barring a computer-generated statement, there was no word from Nestle. Nearly all beat journalists, including myself, wrote and re-wrote to Nestle for a more human, in-depth response, but Nestle was too arrogant for a 2-minute reply.
2) Their social media response was a disaster. Robotic replies, sharing heavy PDF files in the name of responses; Nestle India’s social media damage control has been a joke. Just look at the cookie-cutter responses in the photo below, clearly Nestle India was unwilling to establish consumer connect.
3) Nestle stayed in denial. For a situation of this magnitude, the Nestle global site does not even acknowledge the controversy in India.
Maggi is Nestle India’s mascot. It is baffling to think why the company will let it boil in a soup.
Not the First Time Nestle is in a Soup
In June 2010, Nestle was trapped in a PR nightmare when the environmental group Greenpeace said that the company’s Kit Kat chocolate contained palm oil, whose production was leading to the destruction of rain forests in Indonesia, threatening Orangutans. To get their message across, Greenpeace created a spoof of a Kit Kat commercial where a man bored at work was eating the finger of an Orangutan.
Within a few hours, Nestle found itself in a ‘Twitstorm’ . Angry fans took to social media asking Nestle to “give the Orangutans a break”. It was trending on Twitter with 2.15 lakh tweets.
Instead of standing up for a good cause, Nestle got defensive and responded by warning users not to use altered versions of its logo and taking a snarky tone with its critics. It later apologised.
Food Crisis’ in the Past
Food giants Cadbury’s, Pepsi and Coca Cola, have been embroiled in food controversies in India before.
2003: Cadbury Worm Controversy: Worms were found in Cadbury’s iconic product, Dairy Milk in Mumbai. Cadbury stopped advertising for a month, went into an overdrive mode to show consumers that they care. They imported state-of-the-art machinery for 15 crores, started Project ‘Vishwas’ - an education initiative for 2 lakh retailers, and roped in Big B to assure quality practices.
2006: Pesticides in Fizzy Drinks: In one of the rarest of rare sights, Coke and Pepsi CEOs came together to address a joint press conference assuring people of the safety of their drinks. They also introduced a special safety seal which was meant to guarantee product quality.