The boycott, the pull-out of stocks and the subsequent bans have put the popular Maggi noodles in an avoidable mess. The brand has been brought under severe scrutiny for high content of lead; above the permissible limit as well as MSG; a taste enhancer. While at a press conference convened last Friday, Paul Bulcke, Global Chief Executive Nestle, defended the brand saying it is safe for consumption, regulators point out otherwise. The controversy has hit Nestle hard and communication with the consumers and others seems to have taken a backseat, causing distrust and confusion. MxMIndia spoke with senior marketing and media professionals (in alphabetical order of their last names) Manish Bhatt (Founder-Director, Scarecrow Communications), Harish Bijoor, Brand Advisor and Commentator, CEO, Harish Bijoor Consultants, Rajiv Dingra, Founder and CEO, WATConsult and Lloyd Mathias, Marketing Head, Hewlett-Packard India and requested them for some insights on what went wrong for Brand Maggi, how such a crisis ought to be handled in the age of the digital media and 24×7 news television and the role of celebrities as brand ambassadors.
Would you say the controversy around Maggi has been badly handled in terms of the way the company has communicated with all stakeholders especially consumers?
Manish Bhatt: No, I would not say that. I would say that this happens. There must have been something that went wrong. This is a decision between the company and the food and drug authority. It’s a very scientific matter. It’s a scientific and chemical lab kind of matter. Marketing and communication is an absolutely different thing. We can’t command authority and say whether they are right or wrong, especially with a reputed company whose products we have grown up with. Now communication is a completely different ball game and this can happen to anybody.
Harish Bijoor: Most certainly yes. Each of the stakeholders need a different degree of communication. The regulator, the traditional media, social media and consumer communication needed to be quick, forever-on and active, more active than what was seen.
Rajiv Dingra: The handling has been efficient but not effective. During crisis it’s not only important to clarify or state facts but it’s also important to come across empathetic and concerned for your consumers. Nestles responses have been defensive and at some point dismissive as well, which is why they have been ineffective even though they have been quick to react.
Lloyd Mathias: I think Nestle could have been far more proactive when the issue first surfaced by directly communicating with stakeholders and clarifying issues. Their initial silence – on both paid and unpaid media – has complicated matters and contributed to the issue spiralling out of control.
Has the presence of a hyperactive news media – especially 24 x 7 news television and the social media make matters worse in handling crises?
Manish Bhatt: Yes, but this can happen to the media also, some things can go wrong. Everyone wants information round the clock. Today news is not like a morning event, where the newspaper comes in the morning and you get your news. With social media, the news is not getting analysed by the right kind of people. It is done by anybody and everybody.
Harish Bijoor: Absolutely. Today, brands cannot escape the scathe and scythe of television and social media. If you are not agile, you need to pay the price. At times an unfair price of reputation erosion even. I do not believe Maggi deserves the kind of reputation-erosion it saw in the last week.
Rajiv Dingra: The world has changed and the power is in consumers hands since the advent of social media. It only grows in their hands and brands need to embrace and not fight this reality.
Lloyd Mathias: No. 24×7 news and social media is a reality and one must come to terms with it. For corporations it means devising communication strategies and means to stay responsive to this medium. Consumers tend to air their grievances and concerns on social media and these need to be addressed effectively.
Would you say that the social media and TV news media often becomes a mob and hence all consumer-facing organisations need to train themselves better to interact with both?
Manish Bhatt: Today people get swayed by these things. But after sometime there will be more maturity and there will be more understanding and people won’t get affected by it. Today it becomes a mob and if any issue happens, people throng to social media, twitter, etc. It’s uninvited, but social media is at such a stage. But maybe after some time, it will mature and people will not get affected by these things. What happens on social media is really out of your hands. People also are 24×7 sitting at Ramlilamaidan, and if any issue happens they protest, it’s the same attitude on social media. It makes everybody nervous. I’ve worked with the present company, and they are pretty systematic and organised and very concerned and responsible. But what can one do in such a situation?
Harish Bijoor: Absolutely. This is the new reality. No corporate and brand entity is perfect and infallible. You need to have the ability to manage the tender and weak-points of possibilities in this day and age.
Rajiv Dingra: Mobs happen when you frustrate people by either not answering them or try to talk over them in a loud voice. People have busy lives no one wants to indulge in non-productive banter. But when products that concern them let them down they do speak up. Brands need to realise that consumers place their trust in them and hence when trust is broken there will be noise. Brands need to be more caring and humane in the era of social media.
Lloyd Mathias: The viral effect of social media together with 24×7 news certainly tends to magnify issues – often unreasonably. Consumer facing organizations and indeed all businesses must devise strategies to address this. Keeping communication lines open, putting out clarifications, responding real time to social media posts, having spokespersons addressing live media – help considerably in crisis situations.
Would you have advocated Nestle to be apologetic in their assertiveness about the safety standards as against being defensive and uncommunicative?
Manish Bhatt: It is not right for us to comment on this. It is absolutely none of our business. As a consumer if it affects us, then yes, the sales would be affected, but I would not say that anybody is right or wrong right now. It’s like the law. You have to wait for the law to take its course now.
Harish Bijoor: No. I do believe Nestle has handled that well. It has taken the high ground of quality and it has withdrawn packs occupying that high-ground.
Rajiv Dingra: Maybe apologetic is too strong but certainly more empathetic and more concerned for consumer health. The war is not proving oneself right, it should be about ensuring consumer safety. A great way could have been to pause Maggi supply and redo packaging which reassured consumers and relaunch. They could also release videos on how Maggi is produced. Cadbury did that when worms were found years back. It showed commitment to consumers on ensuring they upped their safety and product standards.
Lloyd Mathias: Being communicative always helps. I think stating the facts clearly while highlighting safety standards the company adheres to both locally and globally would have helped.
Do you think it is appropriate for celebrities endorsing brands to take the heat and while legally they may be protected, they must take the moral authority for the product’s attributes?
Manish Bhatt: Whoever the celebrity may be, he/she is not a chemical engineer or anything. He can’t really check what is there in the product. Beyond a point, nobody can go into anything to that extent. You really can’t accuse them. They can’t check everything. This is the technical and moral responsibility of the company who produces it, or it is the duty of the governmental authorities to keep on checking things on time. You can’t accuse the endorsers.
Harish Bijoor: No. Celebs are really indemnified. No celebrity can be 100% certain of everything about a brand.
Rajiv Dingra: Consumers don’t think legally but logically. Logic is that if you endorse it and I eat it and I fall sick then I will hold you responsible.Consumers will always question celebrities on their actions because celebrities are there due to consumers love and fandom. Though it’s an opportunity for the celebrity brand too to take a higher moral ground and win more fans.
Lloyd Mathias: I think celebrities must be selective and fair in their selection of products, as their endorsement often swings public opinion. So, yes, they carry a moral responsibility. However, in specific instance of Maggi, I don’t think the brand ambassadors are to blame at all. Instant noodles are a relatively safe category and if the food safety authorities had cleared the product, the celebs would obviously believe them. Clearly the brand ambassadors can’t be expected to have independent labs checking on product safety beyond what food safety authorities do.
And lastly:Do you think celebrities need to be more careful in their selection of products while signing up endorsement deals
Manish Bhatt: They should have one more clause added in the agreement that says that they will not be responsible in such an event.
Harish Bijoor: Yes, celebs need to be and will be more careful in the future. And celebs will continue to take risks in the future as well. Let’s accept it. What one celeb refuses, another will pick with glee.
Rajiv Dingra: Maggi is an iconic brand and no celebrity would be able to say no. What comes across from this incident though is that brand aside what’s the actual impact of products on consumer health is also to be considered. The future is one where the consumer is an evolving and educated being and his needs and reactions will be far more evolved than consumers of yesteryears. He will be more profound in his articulation of needs and wants and will also create more movements together due to social media. The powerful thinking and action oriented consumer is here. Brands need to be ready for him.
Lloyd Mathias: Yes, they always need to be careful. As I said above their endorsement is meant to swing public opinion, so they need to be very careful.