retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kate McMahon

What’s worse than your company’s candy bar being depicted as a chocolate covered, blood-spurting finger of a dead orangutan all over YouTube and around the world?

An ill-prepared, defensive and downright snarky reaction.

And that’s exactly what Nestle did in a social media fracas that is already being billed as a classic case study in what not to do when controversy erupts. It’s unfathomable that Nestle, the largest nutrition and food products company in the world, could stumble into such an “epic fail” on the internet.

To summarize the two-week battle that has been lighting up cyberspace, Greenpeace posted a fake commercial on YouTube dubbing Nestle’s KitKat bar as Killer, alleging it was made with palm oil produced from the destroyed rainforest homes of the last orangutans in Indonesia.

Nestle demanded that Google pull the clip from YouTube, citing copyright infringement, and it was yanked. But the clip went viral nonetheless, with over 700,000 viewings. The combination of Nestle’s heavy-handed approach, and Greenpeace’s well-honed guerilla tactics, prompted activists to move the debate from their blogs to Twitter and to Nestle’s Facebook page.

If 95,000 protesters storming Nestle’s Facebook page calling for boycotts wasn’t bad enough, the Nestle moderator replying to the comments fueled the fire.

One post politely questioned the firm’s “dogmatic approach” and noted “social media is about embracing your market, engaging and having a conversation rather than preaching!"

The Nestle moderator's official response: "Thanks for the lesson in manners. Consider yourself embraced. But it's our page, we set the rules, it was ever thus."

It was every thus? Wait, there’s more. Undeterred by an avalanche of criticism, Nestle then threatened to delete comments left by individuals using modified versions of their birds in a nest logo as avatars. The anti-Nestle avalanche only intensified.

Lost in the negativity was Nestle’s announcement that it was no longer purchasing palm oil from Indonesia’s largest palm oil producer and has made a commitment to using only “certified sustainable palm oil” by 2015, when sufficient quantities should be available.

In other words, Nestle had a positive story to tell. But it was so tone-deaf, so defensive, that it blew the moment.

Also lost was Nestle’s attempt to regain its footing on this issue, address the complex palm oil issue in a responsible manner and a spokesperson’s belated admission that “what we take out of this is you have to engage.”

As I’ve said before, companies must engage in order to connect with their consumers. Attempts such as Nestle’s to control or censor social networking are destined to backfire. The conversation will take place on the internet, whether you have an established social media presence or not. What you can control is your response, and a swift and honest response can help contain any tempest.

No doubt Nestle has a new opinion on the “rules” of engagement.

Kate McMahon can be reached via email at .
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