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Nestlé makes the case against social media usage by brands

Feeling bored? In need of stimulation? Then turn to Nestlé’s corporate Facebook page to find out just what a pig’s ear the global brand is making of its social media usage.

In Nestlé’s case “fools” and “angels fear to tread” comes to mind. Given its history of ill-inspired corporate communications, I would have been extremely wary of handing critics any kind of social platform at all, let alone one as popular as Facebook with its claimed audience of 400 million. Here’s why.

Call it the curse of Ernest Saunders if you like (except Guinness, much worse afflicted, has entirely recovered). Saunders was at one time a senior Nestlé executive involved in what can only be described as a corporate cover-up of deaths in the Third World which had occurred after consumption of the corporation’s infant milk formula. It should be said the formula itself had little to do with these deaths, which were caused in the main by the toxic water it was mixed with. And it should be added that this product was never for sale in the UK or Scandinavia, where for a generation students and the sons and daughters of these students have kept aflame the “black history” of Nestlé poisoning babies, much to the bafflement of local management teams who, in all probability, have never had anything to do with the product.

Now I’m sure you can guess where I’m going with this. Yes, once upon a time campus malcontents had to restrict themselves to the student demo, the rag and various forms of samizdat based on John Bull printing technology to propagate their message. But now they’ve  got a global internet platform expressly made for their requirements. That, at least, was the specific intention of Mark Zuckerberg when he launched Facebook in 2004. In the event, it has found a much wider application than the student common room, but let’s just say 18-25 year old ABC1s remain a core audience.

Things have moved on for Nestlé’s corporate reputation as well, but not in a positive direction.

I may, judging from the abundant criticism, be naively unique in believing that Nestlé’s behaviour is no worse than than that of most other multinationals. It’s not ITT subverting the Allende regime in Chile; it’s not BP overthrowing Mossadeq in Iran. And it’s certainly not IG Farben supplying the Third Reich with ZyklonB. You’d never believe it, though, after visiting Nestlé’s Facebook wall. Here’s just one piece of highly representative “fan” mail bobbing about in a welter of unremitting criticism:

Laurence Donoghue: “We don’t want a Q&A session, Nestlé, about how you think what you’re doing isn’t criminal. It is and you are a nasty, immoral stain on humanity. We want you to stop buying palm oil not only from Sinar Mas, but from third party companies as well. Frankly I’m sick of Nestlé exploiting and degrading the earth and the people who live on it.”

Palm oil plantations, by the way, are the new infant milk formula scandal. Thanks, it seems, to Nestlé’s wicked connivance with loggers and planters, the orang-utan is threatened with extinction; and all in the name of tawdry commercial advantage. This one should run and run.

I also note in passing that “fans” – in a final two-fingered salute to Nestlé’s revered brand values – have been making light of its logos. “Killer”, done à la Kit Kat, is one of the more eye-catching examples. And there’s not a thing Nestlé can do about it. After all, removing it will only make matters worse. As for legal action…don’t even think about it.

I leave it to Louise Greeves, consultant at social media agency NixonMcInnes – recently quoted in NMA – to pass measured judgement on Nestlé’s venture into social media:

“It should be about empowering the community and being honest about mistakes. This exposes a real need to train staff in social media and not see it as something that brands can put junior staff in charge of.” Junior – I suspect – no longer, Louise.

Now, I know what some of you might say. We’re all missing the point here. Actually, Nestlé’s comms team is being fiendishly clever by drawing the poison from all this juvenile ire and confining it to a relatively small “space” where it can be harmlessly dissipated. Come again? Nestlé’s doing what? No, Louise is right first time: Nestlé simply hadn’t thought through the corporate implications of what it was doing.

All of which moves us neatly on to one of the main motifs of the annual ISBA conference, held in London last week. Should advertisers ever tangle with social media?

There are examples of timely first aid out there. ISBA director Debbie Morrison mentions one in Pitch, featuring Dell. The PC manufacturer was able to turn around an irate blogger, complaining about poor service, by using Twitter as a customer service and sales platform.

But these edifying examples are few and far between. Social media have a proven track record – placed in the right hands – of virally advancing causes. It was a point eloquently driven home during the presentation given at the conference by Thomas Gensemer, the new media comms expert who helped to get Barack Obama elected. It is less obvious how brands can monetise these sites, or indeed what they are doing there in the first place. No one wants a spammer.

Don’t just take my word for it though. Here’s Nigel Walley, founder of Decipher, in his splendid peroration at the conference:

“The greatest thing you can ever do with new media is to say: No. It’s time – and the recession is a backdrop to this –  to call  “emperor’s new clothes” on 50% of what has happened in new media in the last 10 years. Stop being diverted by the fluff. What you’ve got to ask yourself is this: would firing your digital agency do anything to your business other than reduce your costs?”

And if you don’t feel inclined to believe Walley, then take another look at the case of Nestlé.

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