I’ve had an interesting back and forth debate with Sanjay Mehta (@sm63) on twitter on what lessons we ought to learn from the recent Nestle social media debacle. For those who don’t know the story behind the Nestle debacle, here is a brief snapshot of what I have understood from various online accounts:

Greenpeace bought out a video that showed the effect that palm oil cultivation (a key ingredient in the chocolates that Nestle makes) has on the ecology and how it’s leading to a shrinking habitat for the orangutan. The video, which was up on YouTube, showed the KitKat logo (a Nestle product), with words “Killer” instead of KitKat. Nestle, citing trademark violations, had the video pulled down from YouTube. Greenpeace then turned to its army of twitter followers to help in hosting the video elsewhere on the Internet and the video went viral. All this also attracted attention to Nestle’s Facebook Fan Page, where Greenpeace activists turned “fans” were already launching an assault on the brand. A number of people started posting comments using the morphed logo with the words “Killer” as their avatar. This led to Nestle putting out a request to people to stop “violating” their trademark. A couple of high handed comments from the Nestle people managing the fan page ensured that this snowballed into an all out assault. People joined up as “fans” just to put in their 10 cents on how much they hated Nestle and how Nestle shouldn’t have asserted their right to their trademark. In the end it seems that Nestle has one big great PR screw-up in the hands.

A number of blog posts were of the opinion that had Nestle followed the rules of engaging with “fans” or what could be called “Social Media 101”, this whole fiasco could have been prevented or at least mitigated to some extent. Some of them even put forward ways in which Nestle could have re-worded some of its comments so as to make them more palatable.

I have two basic problems with this whole take on the issue:

  1. It’s easy to give arm-chair advice after an event has happened.
  2. This isn’t some consumer complaining, that you can “handle” through the normal manner.

I’ll elaborate a bit more on my second grouse. All the various suggestions put forward are brilliant and are absolutely the right thing to do if you are dealing with genuine “fans” of your brand or even genuine “critics” of your brand. Note the emphasis is on genuine here. By genuine, I mean to say that these are “real” people, “real” consumers, you get the drift. In my opinion, the playbook goes out of the window when you are confronted with a rogue social army with its own agenda for your brand, hell bent on pulling you down no matter what you do. In this case, reason does not work, especially when the issue seems to be fuelled more by FUD than any real shortcoming of the brand.

I’d liken handling such social media crises to being a hostage negotiator. Consider a situation where say a bank (your brand) has been taken over and you are called in to negotiate the release of hostages. In the first case imagine that the hostage takers are just a bunch of irate customers who decided that it was a good way to show their displeasure by turning up at the bank with a loaded gun. Maybe they have just had a really crappy experience with your bank’s products or maybe they just had a bad day, either way a skillful negotiator can win them over by engaging with them. A really skillful one can even get them to “turn themselves in” without any damage to the bank. This is what I’d liken handling normal brand criticism to.

On the other hand, now imagine the same bank taken over by a professional crew or a bunch of terrorists, hell bent on their own agenda. In the case of terrorists they might not even want to “take” any hostages or leave the bank undamaged. Are they likely to listen to reason? Is “negotiating” with them even useful or just plain counter-productive? Shouldn’t you just call in SWAT to end this quickly and painlessly?

Well, when you are specifically targeted by a special interest group with an agenda that they want to force on your brand, I think it ought to feel precisely like the case above. As to what the SWAT option should be, I really don’t have any answers. It’s probably still early days to craft a credible strategy to deal with these kinds of social media attacks, but I believe that as social media goes more mainstream the frequency of such attacks on brands will only increase and brands had better be prepared then.

PS: Just to clarify the intention of this post is not to support Nestle or to show Greenpeace in a poor light.

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5 Comments

  1. Tweets that mention What we can learn from Nestle (or not) | { enygmatic } -- Topsy.com says:

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by samiir, Elroy Serrao. Elroy Serrao said: @sm63, @ankitagaba what do ya think ?: What we can learn from Nestle (or not) (http://bit.ly/c3TDRB) #Social_Media #Facebook […]

  2. enygmatic says:

    Your missing the point. I’m not even wondering whether Nestle did something wrong or what it could have done better. I’m wondering if it could have actually done something at all, given that the people who started the whole thing and fueled it to the end were doing it solely to target Nestle, and not coz their “bike” got turned away from some “five star”

  3. Aditya Rao says:

    No no. I got your point buddy :) And not trying to undermine your article! Its a well researched and well written piece of beauty! :)

    My two cents. Even if a select group of seeders were solely their for black mouthing, Nestle could have done a lot of things better and curbed the situation a bit. See if some journalists have proof against you and are gonna print it in the newspaper, can you stop them? You can only lessen the damage. Such power is there in every media platform.

    Nope. On social media Nestle could have done these:

    1. Not shout at them and make inquisitive users the villain.
    2. Dont get on the backfoot. Dont abuse the abusers. Ask for proof. Ask for some manners. Try get some empathy. Whats the use of cursing the lynch mob?
    3. Give the public the other side of the story too. Tell them the goodness of Nestle baby products which save Millions of human lives per year in Africa because mothers dont have enough resources to breast feed

  4. Elroy says:

    Well, what could Nestle have done?
    1. True, It could have been polite, but would that have solved the issue? Isn’t that like trying to garland a lynch mob that’s already decided that you are the monster and is out to get you? No good can come of it. Don’t think Brands would ascribe to Gandhi’s ideals of Satyagraha.
    2. Don’t get on the back foot? Ask for Proof? The whole thing started because Nestle tried to take down the “Proof”
    3. Goodness of Nestle = baby food? What have you been smoking? :) That’s what got Nestle started on the road to being a target in 1977. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nestl%C3%A9_boycott for more.
    While you are right in saying that all media has power, none has power like social media. Traditional media would have taken days, nay weeks to create the storm that Greenpeace did with social media.
    The scary thing about social media is that if you manage to push the right buttons, which is getting increasingly easy, you can summon your own private lynch mob and take on any brand without being held accountable for your actions.
    It’s something about the apparent anonymity of the web that makes people behave in a manner that they would not in real life. Honestly do you think as many people would have turned up to picket in front of Nestle had Greenpeace only done an offline protest?
    Again, I’d reiterate – good behavior works well always in a social media context, however I’m not sure if it is of even a little positive use when you are targeted by a special interest group with an agenda.