Nestle in hot water

Marketers at Nestlé must be in a state of shock. The company has been caught off guard by the campaign launched against them by Greenpeace on social media sites since March 17, and seems unsure how to respond.

The protest is over Nestlé’s purchases of palm oil from an Indonesian company, which Greenpeace says has cleared rain forest to establish palm plantations. The clearances are causing huge concern, as the valuable rain forest is host to a huge number of unique species, including the orangutan, which could become extinct if it loses its only habitat.

The campaign started with a report on the company’s palm oil use published in Greenpeace’s website, accompanied by a mock KitKat commercial on the Web showing an office worker opening the candy’s wrapper and snacking on a bloody orangutan finger. Nice. The video has been widely shared across Facebook and Twitter and thousands of negative comments have been posted on the company’s Facebook page.

Nestlé mounted a robust defence, getting YouTube to remove the video, although this has not stopped it spreading. It was less successful when it tried to put out the fire on Facebook. Telling users it would delete their comments seems only to have enraged them further, and now its fan base, mostly protesters, has grown to more than 95,000. The brand is trying to convince consumers that its palm oil purchases are negligible, but the signs are it will have to work a lot harder to get that message across.

It’s a graphic lesson in just what social media can mean for a company. Ignoring it is not an option, but having a Facebook presence, as Nestle has, is not just a way for the brand to raise awareness, it provides an instantaneous way for consumers to tell it that its behaviour stinks. Opinion is now divided about whether it should maintain the dialogue or, since the damage is so bad, close the page down and start again.

Personally I’m with the protesters on this one – sacrificing the orangutans just to help our confectionary hold together a bit better is not something anyone can be happy about. But Nestlé is not the only global brand to use palm oil, or, for that matter, to engage in dubious practices that would make consumers hit the roof if they knew of them. Greenpeace’s success with this campaign will not go unnoticed, and other big brands must be wondering if they are going to be next.

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