Nestle in crisis-mode advertising, yet again

Early June, there was widely covered news about an internal document at Nestle that claimed that “only 37% of Nestle’s food and beverage products had a rating of over 3.5 as per Australia’s health star rating system, in which products are given scores out of five”. The document also claimed that “Nestle acknowledged that a part of its portfolio will never be healthy no matter how much the company tried”.

This news made it to every single newspaper out there – I recall seeing it even in regional language newspapers in India.

The internal document’s leakage and the eventual news are all very damaging to Nestle, of course. Given that the brand, in India, has already faced a phenomenal storm in the middle of the last decade due to the Maggi controversy (which too was about ‘health’, since the allegation was around MSG content beyond prescribed limits in Maggi Noodles!), and again in 2018-19 due to questions on lead content, how should the company address this latest crisis in its health credentials… or the alleged lack of it?

The default approach in India, during a brand crisis that affects health, seems to be to rope in either Amitabh Bachchan or Aamir Khan, show their faces in extreme close-up, make them speak in deep tones on behalf of the brand… and if need be, take them on a tour of the brand’s factory. This was the playbook for Cadbury’s (now Mondelez) and Coca-Cola, when they were knee-deep in the worms-in-chocolate and pesticide controversies, respectively.

During the mid-2020, MSG crisis, Nestle didn’t sign up celebrities for its advertising response. It was more of a PR and brand-led communication that used facts. This was after the initial, messy reactionary response, of course.

During the lead-content crisis in 2018-19, Maggi went head-long into using the emotional pull of Maggi and its history in India, besides a categorical denial about the lead content and Maggi’s promise of safe, healthy food.

This time, Nestle India seems to have taken the mantle to address the global negative coverage under a week. The opening tool? Advertising.

Nestle was present in almost every single English language newspaper on Sunday (June 6, 2021) with a front-page, quarter-page advertisement. I spotted a few regional language versions too – the Hindi version in Nav Bharat Times and the Telugu version in Eenadu. Today (June 7, 2021), the ad was present in many of those editions where the front page was not available on Sunday – like the Mumbai and Bengaluru editions of The Times of India. There were regional versions today – including Daily Thanthi and Dinamalar. I’m sure there are more ads in this series.

In fact, both The Hindu and The Hindu BusinessLine reported Nestle’s ‘response strategy’ as news, on Sunday.

That strategy seems to be two-fold:

  • to showcase the entire (as much as possible) Indian range and broadly assure that the products are healthy enough – the word ‘nutritious’ appears once, within the context of ‘nutritious smiles’, and the word ‘healthy’, the operative word from the leaked internal document, does not appear even once.
  • to offer a symbol of openness by mentioning a phone number and an email ID and ask people to ask questions or offer suggestions through those 2 modes.

This opening move does not address the ‘unhealthy range’ problem that was reported in the very same newspapers a week ago directly.

It shows a range, of course, but uses broad language around ‘our relationship’, ‘your trust’ leading up to the facade of openness using a phone number and an email ID.

The use of the phone number and email ID to talk to Nestle seems to be indicating, “Let’s take this private, ok?”. The news of the leaked document was public, in the news. The conversations around the news were in public. But the advertisement skirts the news’ content and indicates that people could take it up directly with Nestle. As if people are keen on having a conversation with a brand on email or worse, a phone call!

We are in an age where people open and keep a Twitter handle just to be able to talk to/complain about brands/companies. Social media channels of brands have become that integral in the overall communications ecosystem. Yet, Nestle does not list the corporate handles of Nestle India on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or LinkedIn for this conversation on trust; only a phone number and an email ID.

I recall the last time Nestle used social media as a channel to address customers’ queries and comments, it went horribly bad – during the MSG crisis. Here is a sample:

Read the longer post: Post MSG controversy, Maggi initiates Mass Auto-Response protocol

Ironically, I had written about Nestle’s 2019 European move where they started to use a ‘Nutri-Score’, a voluntary front-of-pack scheme that classifies foods and beverages according to their nutritional profile.

See: Would a brand voluntarily disclose that their food item is unhealthy? Nestle does!

It was a color-coded system with a scale ranging from A (healthier choices) to E (less healthy choices)! More than 5000 products from Nestle, in five European countries (Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, and Switzerland) started featuring Nutri-Score.

The scheme made it possible to see some of their products marked with an ‘E’ – Kit-Kat was one such product!

This was a great move towards better transparency and was a potential precursor to the current ‘unhealthy’ document leak. It put people in charge of deciding what is good for them. Now, with Nestle India’s response to the latest crisis, Nestle seems to be going back to sweeping generalizations in its communication.

Still, considering the strategy is supposed to include a series of ads (as per the articles on The Hindu and The Hindu BusinessLine), I look forward to seeing what else Nestle has in store, to overcome the concerns thrown up by the leaked internal document.

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