Published on: May 10, 2010
Last week, we had a story about vanilla and chocolate flavored toddler formula being manufactured by Mead Johnson that is the subject of some concern that it could contribute to childhood obesity levels. This concern is being expressed perhaps most vociferously in various social media venues, and my position - putting the wisdom of sweetened toddler formula aside - is that companies need understand and embrace social media as a way of disseminating their messages...because that, most assuredly, is what critics will do.
Interestingly, this same theme was sounded in a different story - about Procter & Gamble facing criticisms in social media and on the internet because of complaints that its new diaper line is causing rashes in babies. Again, without passing judgement on the complaints, I pointed out that P&G seemed to be complaining that social media is the problem, which is the wrong way to go in my not-so-humble opinion.
Lots of email on this subject...
One MNB user wrote:I think that your argument that P&G is wrong in re: social media is incorrect. The internet has become a “social media” and although I cannot comment on the validity of the “rash” if P&G is correct that it is not a problem with their product then they are 100% correct. This is the new “PROBLEM” and it is a BIG problem. With more and more people using the internet for information and “believing on first site” businesses will become helpless as they will not be believed any more than government will be believed. People have no way of verifying “net” information any more than newspaper information in the past.
Business and government have created the problem for themselves since they have been lying to the public forever. Nonetheless on those rare occasions where they (b and g) are being accurate they are still helpless against the social media. All one need do is read a few blogs on each side of any subject. Most people do not have the time.
In the end, the social media will cancel itself out and people will go back to believing only through their own experience or trusted friends.
Let me put this as gently as I can.
If you believe that social media is going to go away as a force, then I suggest you take that nest egg and invest it in a buggy whip factory.
MNB user Dave Vosteen wrote:I know you will never respond to my input. Partly because I am a conservative who believes in people staying out of my life and how I raise my children. You are completely wrong on this issue. There should not even be a conversation about it. Any manufacturer can make anything they want. If you don’t like it don’t buy it. Either way people should shut up and quit whining.
I am happy to both post and respond to your input. I am a little surprised by it, for several reasons.
One, I ran an email last Friday that made your precise point....and I said in my response to that email, the following:
• "To be clear, I’m not sure I called for anybody or anything to take action against Meade Johnson. I just said that this didn’t seem like a very good idea, and that I would not feed such a product to my toddler."
• "I agree with you. Mead Johnson has a perfect right to make this product, introduce it to the marketplace, and then see if it succeeds or fails. However, just because we can make a product does not mean we should make a product."
I may have put it in somewhat different words than you did, but I certainly wasn't disagreeing with you.
Where we differ is when you say "there should not even be a conversation about it" and "people should shut up and quit whining." First of all, if people stop having conversations about this kind of stuff, I'm out of business. So for selfish reasons, I hope we keep talking. (Besides, on some issue people might want you
to shut, up, and I'll also defend your right to be heard.) Furthermore, it simply is not practical in this day and age to expect that people are not going to use the tools at their disposal - especially the one on which you reading me right now - to express themselves and try to shape people's opinions on virtually everything. That's simply not the world we live in.
Finally, I'm sorry you believe that you will not be given a chance to express your opinions on MNB because you are "a conservative who believes in people staying out of my life and how I raise my children." Because in saying so, you misread my personal views, my politics and, perhaps most importantly, my vision of what MNB is supposed to be all about.
Another MNB user commented:It really bugs me when people imply that voicing an opinion that something is “wrong” is tantamount to endorsing a legal ban.
You irk me regularly, but sometimes you are quite reasonable (when you see things MY way, of course).
Irking people is what I do for a living. Thanks for the compliment.
Another MNB user wrote:Having read your articles for almost (if not) 10 years now, I find your stance on this topic interesting.
You have swallowed the Social Media pill - Guilty, until proven innocent.
You failed to mention that you have a child affected by these nappies - or you've sided with social media, because people wouldn't lie. You're not alone in your stance, and there may very well be people who are affected by the nappy. But sometimes, people just love to stick the boot in, whilst the body is down. With social media, a lot of boots can come out of the woodwork, and sometimes there is no body, just boots.
Not at all. I'm just saying that social media is a reality, and companies have to be prepared to deal with it - you cannot afford to ignore the guy with a bullhorn, or to look like you are ignoring a problem that the guy with a bullhorn is shouting about.
As for the veracity of the people complaining....I have no dog in this hunt, and I’m way too old to have children wearing nappies. I don’t accept anything on faith...but I also don’t discount the possibility that they may have a real complaint.
Whether the complaints are real or fabricated, it is critical for companies to a) take them seriously, and b) embrace the media venues in which they are being aired to the extent that it is possible to answer criticisms in an effective way.
MNB shared a debate that took place on the New York Times
website between US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and J. Justin Wilson of the Center for Consumer Freedom about the role of government in dealing with the obesity crisis, especially when it comes to what is in the lunches served in schools.
MNB user Steve Cook weighed in:I just don't get it. If we all just sit around on our butts and eat, the government will pass enough restrictions to make us healthy again! You can't legislate common sense(most legislators don't have any). People need to get off the couch and get active, go outside and take your child with you. Maybe I'm too simplistic, but I think it would solve a lot of the problems today.
Another MNB user wrote:It would be interesting to see if obesity levels do indeed go down after the Coke and Frito machines are removed. I suspect not. There have been numerous studies leading to the conclusion that kids get fat because parents don’t provide proper meals or lifestyle guidance . Those old stories about mom guarding the cookie jar and making kids to go out and play had a point. I believe that kids who eat dinner with their parents at night are less likely to be obese than their friends who eat dinner in front of the TV. If parents in the community don’t want vending machines in the school, then they can impose their will through the school board. The mechanisms exist, people have to stir themselves out of their torpor to make them work. The alternative of an army of $ 90,000 ( with benefits and retirement) a year food police is far less preferable and simply lets mom and dad off the hook.
Another MNB user wrote:Schools are government financed and government territory and they should rule what happens on that territory. Back in my day over 50 years ago we did not have any vending machines in schools. There was a little store next to the school where one could buy all the bad stuff one wanted. I never went in there.
Never? Did you get beaten up a lot?
As far as I am concerned, it is phrases like “I never went in there” that can create an unhealthy attitude toward food.
There is plenty of room in life for indulgence. It just seems to me that it is important to find a balance.
Isn’t there a Jimmy Buffett line about a little sin being good for the soul?
We also had a discussion on MNB last week about the meaning of “conventional” when it comes to retail formats...a discussion that MNB user Art Turock wanted to get in on:Loved your commentary today. The whole notion of treating "conventional supermarkets" as a category to benchmark is so often reasoning used to avoid the risks of bold innovation and a misunderstanding of what "Differentiation" means.
Differentiation involves developing a distinctive value proposition that "locks in" target customers and "locks out" competitors.
Differentiation means standing out unquestionably as best by comparison for your target customers By definition, differentiation involves losing customers. A retailer decide what customer segments and needs to serve brilliantly, which means other customers may choose to shop elsewhere. But the customers you serve brilliantly are locked in-- often as lifetime customers.
Differentiation also means making your innovation hard to copy by competitors. Trying to confine innovation within the conventional supermarket category amounts to making your innovations easy for competitors to copy.
Learn from the fringe-- the Whole Foods, the Stew Leonard's, but don't stop there. This is why I invite retailers and suppliers to learn about "talent development" from adapting standards and practices from USC football, Ritz Carlton, the Marines.
I would add to this that while differentiation gives you a competitive advantage, it does not provide a permanent and unassailable advantage.
All advantages are by their very nature assailable. Which is why innovation and differentiation have to be an ongoing process.
MNB also took note last week of a Bloomberg Business Week
story about how a wide variety of companies are trying to control health care costs by encouraging their employees to get into shape. One of the ways they are doing so is by requiring employees to cover a larger percentage of their premiums and health care expenses. But many also are using the internet to create “technology-enhanced wellness programs, many of which incorporate online assessments,” to help employees get in shape.
I commented that I am one of those people who believes that companies are entitled to get employees to have some skin in the health care game. This all works for me.
One MNB user responded:I’m one of those employees who works out regularly, is lowering my weight, etc, etc. And my problem is that I “chose the wrong parents.” I have inherited two conditions that require expensive treatment. According to the smartest people I’ve talked to, nothing I did could have contributed to these conditions, or helped me avoid them. So when companies say they’ll raise premiums on their less-healthy employees, it makes me a little crazy. I do agree that motivation payments—lowering premiums for those participating in certain programs—makes sense.
One would hope that situations such as yours would be factored into how companies create healthy living programs. That may be asking for too much, but that would be the ideal.