Fans have gone ape over Nestlé’s Facebook profile

Multinational brands that try to harness the power of social media run the very grave risk of getting their fingers burned

Stuart Smith
Stuart Smith

If you want to know how not to use social media, take a look at Nestlé’s corporate Facebook page.

“Fools” and “angels fear to tread” comes to mind. Given its poor history of corporate communications, Nestlé should have been extremely wary of handing critics any kind of social platform, let alone one as popular as Facebook with a claimed audience of 400 million. Here’s why.

Call it the curse of Ernest Saunders if you like (Guinness, much worse afflicted, has survived it better). Saunders was a senior Nestlé executive involved in what can only be described as a corporate cover-up of deaths in the developing world, which 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. 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 the purpose. In the six years of its existence, Facebook has found a much wider application than the student common room; but let’s just say that 18- to 25-year-old ABC1s remain a core audience.

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

I may, judging from the abusive criticism heaped on the company, be naive in believing that Nestlé’s behaviour is no worse than that of most other multinationals. It’s not, after all, ITT subverting Salvador Allende’s regime in Chile; it’s not BP overthrowing Mohammed Mossadegh 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 representative “fan” mail bobbing about in the vitriol: Laurence Donoghue wrote: “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 formula milk scandal. Thanks, it seems, to Nestlé’s wicked connivance with loggers and planters, the orangutan is threatened with extinction; and all in the name of tawdry commercial advantage. It was, in fact, Nestlé’s ham-fisted attempt to suppress a (rather nasty) video on YouTube – seeded by Greenpeace and highlighting this very theme of palm oil plantations – that triggered the current outburst of Facebook bile.

It was, in fact, Nestlé’s ham-fisted attempt to suppress a (rather nasty) video on YouTube – seeded by Greenpeace and highlighting this very theme of palm oil plantations – that triggered the current outburst of Facebook bile.

Arguably worse than the abuse, however, is the creative use “fans” – in the ultimate two-fingered salute to Nestlé’s hallowed brand values – have been making of its logos. “Killer”, done à la KitKat, is one of the more eye-catching examples. And there’s not a thing Nestlé can do about it. After all, removing the libelous logo will only make matters worse. As for legal action, Nestlé should not even think about it.

I leave it to Louise Greeves, consultant at social media agency NixonMcInnes to pass measured judgement (as quoted in NMA) on the company’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.”

Of course, it’s possible I’m 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. The balance of probability, however, suggests otherwise. Nestlé simply hasn’t thought through the corporate implications of what it has been doing.

All of which moves us neatly on to one of the main themes at the annual ISBA conference, held in London two weeks ago. Should advertisers ever tangle with social media?

There are examples of timely first aid out there. ISBA director Debbie Morrison mentions one, featuring Dell, in Pitch. 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 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, here’s Nigel Walley, managing director of Decipher, in his no-holds-barred 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 ten years. Stop being diverted by the fluff. What you’ve got to ask yourself is, 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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