Can a brand die online?

Nestle and Greenpeace battle it out in a PR scandal that is challenging the ‘David vs. Goliath’ equation

Greenpeace recently released an attack video aimed at Nestlé’s KitKat brand. The video, which shows that Nestlé is all but condoning the destruction of orangutans’ natural habitat, has been a viral hit, causing the company to address an issue it otherwise may not have. Social media is much lauded as an agent of change – but can it affect a change in the typical David and Goliath relationship?

Nestlé are not having a good year, as far as their social media campaigns are concerned. The FMCG producer has recently had to deal with a barrage of criticism over their invitation of several influential “mummy bloggers” to an all-expense paid trip to Nestlé’s HQ. The brand is starting to lose it’s hard-won “mummy” image.

Greenpeace’s spot names and shames Nestlé for using palm oil in the production of its KitKat chocolate bars. Using high-impact pictures to appeal to an eco-conscious public, Greenpeace challenges Nestlé’s choice of Indonesian suppliers, who apparently clear rainforest areas, endangering the natural habitat of orangutans.
The spot is effective: it starts out as you’d imagine a KitKat ad spot would, but quickly turns into a bloodbath. A man opens a KitKat bar, but rips off the bloody finger of an orangutan instead of a finger of chocolate. If that wasn’t enough to discourage consumers, Greenpeace ups the ante with a further clip, showing a KitKat bar plowing through the rainforest, destroying trees and killing orangutans.

Greenpeace, have according to their spokespeople, not unfairly singled out the company. Their discussions with Knorr and Unilever have been fruitful: both companies have stopped using controversial palm oil suppliers. The organisation contests that Nestlé have been dragging their feet on the issue for years – the spot is a ‘last ditch’ attempt to affect a change.

“It’s all about causing pressure,” says spokesperson Björn Jettka.

Nestlé did try to respond to the criticism using the same viral platforms, but failed to understand the nature of that platform. Their response on social media was a link to their press release; hardly an attempt at ‘speaking the language of their users’! 

The brand responded to critcisms on its Facebook page, but the flurry of negativity became all too much. Instead of seeking a superior communications strategy based on the correct tone of voice for the medium, the brand decided to delete critical comments. Rather than using another YouTube video to explain their response (which, on balance, was quite good), the brand focussed on getting the UK version of the Greenpeace viral deleted.

Social media doesn’t seem to be the brand’s forté. Who likes someone that seeks to camouflage negative sentiment to their own advantage? This attack on the freedom of opinion hardly helped their eco-friendly claims.
Big brands are still facing problems adapting their communications to new and developing platforms, especially ones that rely on user engagement. Online marketing isn’t a one-way road. The classic ‘transceiver’ model of marketing is long gone. Only open dialogue can raise a brand’s awareness online – traditional marketing cannot be directly transferred to an online audience without significant ‘translation’.

Brands have a real problem reacting to online criticism; a danger with any engagement campaign. Brands will need to add digital natives to their teams, if they want to strategically influence their consumers online.

Luisa Keuler


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