The digital and interactive space is today the hottest media to be present on. Every brand wants to be in this space; at the least every brand which wants to retain an appeal among younger people and come across as a brand in touch with the times. But ‘hot’ can have a rather sinister meaning too, as many big brands have discovered to their annoyance.
Even as the big brands were vying for television and print space in the early days of the internet, the digital space was the recourse for a number of NGOs and lobbying groups, who often claimed (and do even today) to not have pockets deep enough to compete with the big brands. An entire culture of ‘armchair activism’ sprung up on the net, with online petitions and email forwards on issues ranging from saving rain forests, banning whaling or pressurising Western governments to boycott dictatorships.
As brands started adopting the online space, they were wading into territory occupied by bleeding hearts. Though an analogy with armed European colonists invading peaceful aboriginal lands might sound far-fetched, some of the shrill rhetoric on the net certainly seems to portray it like that. And one after the other, brands have faced attacks for their naiveté in utilising the online space.
Take Nestlé’s case in point. It set up a Facebook page to try and ‘engage’ its customers. It did, but at an enormous PR cost to the company, from which it is still recovering.
Nestlé had been the target of a long running campaign by ecological lobbyist Greenpeace to give up the use of palm oil, which it uses in its products. Most palm oil plantations are in Malaysia and Indonesia, built on land cleared from the forests. Greenpeace portrayed Nestlé as an orangutan killer. While the truth of Greenpeace’s allegations (which include a gut-wrenching video posted on YouTube) remains to be proved, Nestlé could afford to ignore it in the media it was dominant in. But when it moved to Facebook in March 2009, where lobby groups had an established audience, it sailed into hot water.
‘Save the orangutan’ lobbyists promptly flooded Nestlé’s ‘fan page’ with comments demonising the company.
Sadly, the company rather than trying to counter their criticism with facts, issued threats about copyright violations (many users had altered their ‘profile images’ to ones which had Nestlé’s KitKat logo modified to read as ‘killer’). The action boomeranged, as Nestlé faced allegations of censorship and stifling free comment.
Nestlé’s voice was drowned out by comments like “It’s not OK for people to use altered versions of your logos, but it’s OK for you to alter the face of Indonesian rainforests? Wow!” While their truthfulness was questionable, they had the power to erode Nestlé’s brand image online, and they did that fully. In the end, Nestlé had to backtrack and apologise for being ‘rude’, and ended up looking more like the villain of the piece.
What made the whole thing worse was that the lobbyist camp was savvy enough to use other social media as well, including the blogosphere and Twitter. This resulted in a perfect ‘twitstorm’, and had a David-beats-Goliath ending. Nestlé announced in October 2009 that it would use ‘sustainable’ palm oil by 2015, allowing lobby groups to claim victory. But what it isn’t going to use in a long time is social media.