On April 7, 2015, Nestle India carried a post commemorating World Health Day on its Facebook page. Titled ‘7 steps to safe food’, it mentions ‘sourcing’, ‘separating’, ‘sanitising’ as some of the essential steps in preparing food that is safe to consume.
In a telling twist of fate, the next post on the its Facebook page is dated May 21 and is an emphatic assertion to people that ‘your favourite’ Maggi noodles has not been recalled’. Nestle would not have expected that soon after espousing the cause of safe food on World Health Day, it would be scrambling to prove the safety of one of its own brands! The posting thread on the ‘Meri Maggi’ Facebook page reflects this turn of fortunes too.
Questions and comments from consumers on both pages reveal two stark truths: one, that Maggi is one of the most-loved brands in India (the same love does not seem to extend to Nestle though; there is food for thought here) and two, that the episode has seeded deep anxiety and doubt in the minds of many.
From my conversations with industry observers and consumers in general, I can sense a feeling that Maggi has not done enough to allay the anxiety and the fear of people.
Sure, the brand has responded to comments on its Facebook page and set up a page on its website where it addresses key questions about the safety of its products and its testing protocols. Still, I can’t escape this feeling that it could have done better. The brand did not seem to come out into the open and take the issue head-on. Its posts and press statements seemed to be sketchy, with a hint of arrogance too. Moreover, one did not get a sense of continuity and empathy in the way the brand spoke to the market; it seemed to open up in fits and starts.
Let’s admit that in situations like this, it is very difficult for brands to get it exactly right. Crises do not come with a user manual that tells brands how to handle them. They catch brands totally unawares. As a result, there is bound to be considerable confusion in the boardroom, as the brand fights to get back into the good books of the authorities and the law.
At the same time though, brands must realise that they must address the questions and concerns assailing key stakeholders like consumers, channel partners, employees and the various partner agencies. After all, these groups have reposed enormous trust in the brand by buying into its promise. Over a period of time, they have built a relationship with the brand based on this trust. This is what makes them stay loyal to the brand for years, thereby building a halo around the brand. But if the brand does not handle disastrous moments well, it can turn off large numbers of consumers and others. Sales and brand image will likely suffer. And all those years of hard work can come unstuck in a matter of days.
And so, it is vital for brands to get a few things right when a crisis like this hits them. Here are a few suggestions for them:
Admit it. One of the worst mistakes a brand can make under the circumstances is to behave like an ostrich and bury its head in the sand. To go into denial mode or keep quiet will only strengthen people’s suspicion that something is really amiss. Instead, own up to the fact that something has gone wrong, apologise for it and assure stakeholders that an independent enquiry will be conducted into the matter. Even if you believe that you are not to blame for what happened, you must take moral responsibility for it.
Keep communication lines open. In situations like this, people want the brand to reassure them that everything is being done to sort out the matter quickly. And so, it is critical to keep talking to consumers and other stakeholders.
Apart from answering their questions promptly, the brand must keep them informed about the progress of the enquiry, results of the audits or tests that are being conducted, etc. If the brand is indeed at fault for whatever has happened, it must make public whatever corrective action it is taking.
Be swift and proactive. While it is tempting to keep quiet and hope that the brouhaha will subside before many people notice, this would end up damaging the reputation of the brand. It will send out signals that the brand is being evasive. Proactively addressing concerns of stakeholders and dousing the fire as it were, would be the best thing to do.
Don’t forget your employees
When all the attention of the company is focused on addressing questions and complaints from the government, regulatory authorities, consumers and so on, it is easy to forget that your employees are also key stakeholders in the matter. Indeed, they are your first customers. So, before you harness their energy to resolve the crisis, make sure that you discuss the issue threadbare with them. Only if they are convinced will they help you convince others.
One can’t help thinking of how Cadbury responded to the Dairy Milk ‘worm’ issue in 2003. If only all brands were to handle matters as deftly as that!
The author is vice president – brand communication, Vertebrand