Nestle : Case of Bad Rumour Management – Views From Prabhakar

The funny thing about rumours is that there are 2 kinds, as we all know from our personal experiences.  When a rumour starts you don’t know if it is true or false.  Either way it tends to grow virally almost in geometric progression. And all the time the public waits for a confirmation on the truth or falsity of the rumour and anxiously at that.

But in the Nestle Maggi case in India most of the public was left wondering if Nestle was charged unfairly.  I quote from the Nestle Global Website

‘In light of growing consumer confusion due to an Indian government laboratory detecting lead levels above permissible limits, Nestlé India announced that it would temporarily stop selling Maggi noodles until the situation was resolved. The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) issued an order to recall Maggi noodles from the Indian market and banned its sale and production.

Nestlé India consequently filed a legal petition with the Bombay High Court, seeking a judicial review of this order. The Court ruled in favour of Nestlé and overturned the government’s ban on Maggi noodles following additional tests from three independent laboratories with lead content well within the permissible limits.’

So if Nestle was in fact innocent and had been wrongly charged, could they have done something about it?

Rumour Management

Any rumour can grow rapidly taking the shape of the Diffusion Curve proposed by Dr Everett Rogers almost 50 years ago.  Once the  rumour starts, it  moves up very quickly to take the shape of the normal distribution curve.

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Original chart by Dr Everett Rogers.  Improvisations to include rumours by Prabhakar Mundkur

The challenge in rumour management is that unless the rumour is quelled effectively at the ‘innovators’ stage it will start to take an upward turn.  This means that instead of seeing how the curve grows, we need to figure out how to kill the curve quickly in its formative stages. The blue dotted lines in the above graph represent the points at which the graph can be prevented from growing for which positive actions need to be taken for its decline. Once it has passed the ‘early adopters’ stage it would have gained so much momentum that it would become impossible to quell it. In rumour management the emphasis is on how to kill the growth of the curve and bring it back to zero.

Nestle let the rumour grow. The confirmation of MSG in Nestle’s Maggi Noodles was in April 2015.  The main line media announced it on May 20 a month later. They had a whole month to think about it.  They could have recalled the product themselves if they had any doubts of the eventual consequences. Or it is possible they thought the government wouldn’t take it too seriously, the media would forget about it and the controversy would die a natural death by just plainly observing silence on the issue.

Nestle handled Communication Badly

Nestle cut off all lines of communication instead of using them.  They didn’t speak to their consumers. They didn’t talk to the journalists who were hounding them for a statement.  Instead all the journalists got was a computer generated impersonal statement.  On social media their responses were passive.  There was no protest. No one got the feeling that they were being wronged.  In fact they seemed more than willing to give in to a kind of passive submission.

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So Nestle let the rumour keep on growing while Nestle stayed in denial. Their global website for the longest time did not even acknowledge the problem. In the meantime even Maggi lovers who kept pledging their love for the brand got tired.

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And then the loyal consumers too gave in to the rumour.  The brand suffered, which is a pity.  Because it is a great brand that India loves and if only Nestle had managed the rumour it would have been where it always was.

Nestle and Greenpeace

But this is not the first time Nestle has had a run in on problems of this kind. In 2010 Nestle had a run in with Greenpeace.

I reproduce the Green Peace accusation verbatim.

Need a Break? So does the Rainforest

Nestlé, maker of Kit Kat, uses palm oil from companies that are trashing Indonesian rainforests, threatening the livelihoods of local people and pushing orang-utans towards extinction.

We all deserve to have a break – but having one shouldn’t involve taking a bite out of Indonesia’s precious rainforests. We’re asking Nestlé to give rainforests and orang-utans a break and stop buying palm oil from destroyed forests.

Green peace then put this video on youtube.

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Nestlé’s  response unfortunately was to ask for a withdrawal of the video claiming infringement of copyright, so it was finally taken off youtube.  Greenpeace then moved the video to Vimeo where it again went viral.   Finally it ended in an outbreak of criticism on  mainstream media around the world. Once again Nestle helped the rumour curve to grow to its fullest before they apologised.  By that time the damage was done.

Nestle finally gave in to Greenpeace’s attacks.  Greenpeace then was forced to make this announcement.

A big ‘Thank You!’ to the hundreds of thousands of you who supported our two-month Kit Kat campaign by e-mailing Nestlé, calling them, or spreading the campaign message via your Facebook, Twitter and other social media profiles. This morning, Nestlé finally announced a break for the orang-utan – as well as Indonesian rainforests and peatlands – by committing to stop using products that come from rainforest destruction.

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There is one lesson to be learnt in all this.  If you are in the wrong its better to apologise and change tack immediately rather than act nonchalant and righteous, because you really need to  kill the viral growth of the rumour curve. The more it grows the more it damages your brand. But when someone accuses you of any wrong, even when you are in the right. please defend yourself immediately as in the Nestle India case.

As someone once said an unchallenged lie often becomes the truth.

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About the Author

Prabhakar Mundkur is an ad veteran with over 35 years of experience in Advertising and Marketing. He works as an independent consultant and is also Chief Mentor with Percept H.

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