Nestle's silence on Maggi defies logic; it should be 'seen' as managing the crisis, says Shailesh Dobhal.
Watching the ongoing monosodium glutamate and lead controversy involving Nestle's instant noodle brand Maggi, I am reminded of the early 2000s when the pesticide in cola controversy broke out for the first time.
As a beat correspondent fed on the perennial and self-sustaining theme of the Coke versus Pepsi slugfest, it was a rare sight to see the chief executives of two of the world's most bitter rivals - Sanjiv Gupta of Coca-Cola India and Rajeev Bakshi of PepsiCo India - closing ranks to address the media at a press conference.
The Centre for Science and Environment (CSE)-led allegation had stung the cola majors hard, with sales plummeting and the narrative across media turning against a 'non-essential, poisoned product', and from a multinational to boot! Messrs Gupta and Bakshi and the battery of the public relations machinery at their command flung into action in trying to mould the narrative from their perspective.
The arguments came thick and fast - given the all-pervasive presence of pesticides across our food chain, a glass of milk perhaps contained over thousand times more traces of chemicals then a bottle of their colas; that searching for pesticides in their products needed much more sophisticated labs then available to CSE; that India had no quality norms for pesticides in soft-drinks and much else.
Besides the common platform of the Indian Soft Drinks Manufacturers Association, the cola majors sought the media one-on-one to tell its side of the story.
Beyond directly engaging with the media, the firms put out ad campaigns, celebrity pitch and all - Aamir Khan for Coke and Amitabh Bachchan for Pepsi.
And Pepsi did not stop there, with its CEO, Bakshi, himself appearing in ads, assuaging consumer concerns about the safety of its drinks.
Though the degree of success that these communication strategies achieved is debatable, with the firms out there fighting the crisis, and visibly too, consumers and regulators alike were willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.
To be sure, the controversy did dent long-term demand for colas among health- and safety-conscious consumers, but the next time CSE bought the allegations afresh three years later, the traction with media and consumers was far less, impacting sales to a lesser degree compared to the first instance.
And this after the cola controversy found echo in Parliament, with a Joint Parliamentary Committee corroborating CSE's findings of Pepsi and Coca-Cola brands containing harmful pesticides, though it stopped short of blaming the firms directly for it.
Now, Nestle is the world's biggest food firm, and it has battled many a communication crisis involving far more serious allegations - the ones over contamination in its baby food, for instance.
But its response in the current crisis is seen wanting. Beyond the day one press statement that its product was safe, a point it reiterated on Monday too, and the fact that it was engaging with the Uttar Pradesh Food and Drug Administration (FDA) - the regulator that brought the charges - there has been little attempt to either proactively seek out the media, or worse, officially respond to queries.
It is no surprise that the communication has been hijacked on traditional and social media alike, with Maggi, a brand that contributes almost a third of Nestle's India sales, becoming the subject of all manner of judgements and jokes.
The company's reported plans to press its brand endorser, film star Madhuri Dixit, for rebuilding trust with consumers, too, seem to have run into problems, with the Uttarakhand FDA serving her a notice to explain the basis for making nutritional value claims in the advertisements.
What's worse for Nestle, the central government, too, has walked into the controversy, with Consumer Affairs Minister Ram Vilas Paswan directing the federal food inspector, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India, to take note of the matter in the interest of public health.
Why, Paswan has even suggested a class action suit as a plausible option should a consumer complain against Maggi to the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission.
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Photograph: A television commercial grab