Advertising experts reckon Maggi should be transparent to avoid further damage

Experts said social media amplified the issue to a level not many consumer brands in India have had to deal with

Indian social activists burn packets of Nestle’s Maggi instant noodles during a protest in Kolkata on 4 June 2013. Photo: AFP
Indian social activists burn packets of Nestle’s Maggi instant noodles during a protest in Kolkata on 4 June 2013. Photo: AFP

Bengaluru: Nestle India Ltd needs to be transparent in its communication strategy to calm consumer nerves over its popular Maggi instant noodles, withdrawn by the company over a health and safety scare, said branding and marketing experts.

“What Nestle needs to display are two things—transparency and responsibility,” said Dheeraj Sinha, chief strategy officer, South and South East Asia at advertising agency Grey Group.

“Many consumers are still willing to accept that Nestle may not be at fault—but where’s the evidence from the company? Also, by its nature, responsibility needs a human face, not a press release or an automated tweet. It’s really in the hands of Nestle as to how they manage this crisis and that will either save or perish the brand,” Sinha added.

Nestle said on Thursday it will temporarily stop selling Maggi as there is “consumer distress and confusion” over allegedly high levels of lead and monosodium glutamate (MSG) found in Maggi.

A day later India’s food safety regulator ordered Nestle India to withdraw all nine variants of the popular snack from the market, calling them “unsafe and hazardous” for human consumption.

On Friday afternoon Paul Bulcke, chief executive Nestle SA denied there was any MSG in their products sold in the country.

“We do not add MSG in Maggi noodles. We have been carrying tests on Maggi noodles on multiple batches. All results that came out indicate that Maggi noodles are safe for consumption,” Bulcke told reporters.

Several states and supermarkets ordered Maggi noodles taken off the shelves as the crisis escalated amid heightened scrutiny on social and digital media.

Advertising experts said social media amplified the issue to a level not many consumer brands in India have had to deal with.

“Pepsi and Cadbury did not have such a wide and impactful social media audience to address when crisis struck (them) years ago,” said K.V. Sridhar, chief creative officer at SapientNitro, a marketing consultancy. He was referring to allegations of pesticides found in Pepsico products and worm infestation in Cadbury confectionary.

More than paid advertisement, said Sridhar, what the company needs to do is to really engage on digital media, put a face to its communication and be transparent about the ingredients in Maggi.

The situation is chaotic and will take time to clean itself up, he said.

“It will be very difficult for the brand to steer clear of the controversy and the damage done (so far) over the next 3-6 months,” Sridhar added.

Earlier this week, the brand launched a micro-website to talk about the safety of its ingredients to consumers.

Maggi India’s tTwitter handle has sporadically responded to queries. “MAGGI Noodles will return to the shelves as soon as the unfounded concerns have been clarified,” its Twitter handle declared on Sunday.

Communication with retailers and distributors, too, remained intermittent.

“Most companies in India lack any processes to counter crisis,” added Ashish Bhasin, chairman and chief executive officer at Dentsu Aegis Network (South Asia). There has to be constant communication to ensure the consumer continues to trust a company’s products, he said.

Brands in India, including Pepsi and Cadbury have been the subject of food safety controversies in the past.

Sridhar said that it took Pepsi several months to shake off the controversy, “but they returned, they were honest and both the brand ambassador and company’s top executive instilled re-assurance into the brand.”

Months after a nongovernment report alleged high levels of pesticides in Pepsi colas in 2003, PepsiCo India chief executive officer Rajeev Bakshi appeared on a TV campaign where he was shown reassuring a worried consumer.

In 2003, chocolate maker Cadbury India Ltd ( now Mondelez India Foods Pvt. Ltd) got its brand ambassador Amitabh Bachchan to launch a new campaign and re-launched its brand of chocolates in a better packaging, three months after packs of the chocolate brand were found infested with worms.

The campaign showed the veteran actor take a tour of the Cadbury factory, highlighting the apparent safety aspects undertaken by the chocolate maker.

Sridhar said Nestle needs to come out with a swift and direct communication strategy with the consumers. “Maggi has tremendous equity. People are waiting to hear and see the confidence in their quality from their trusted brand,” he added.

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