Following reports suggesting Maggi noodles contain high levels of lead, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India issued a nationwide ban of the product in early June. MSG has also been found in the brand’s noodles, despite being labelled “No added MSG”. Analysts predict a 7 per cent drop in Nestlé sales as a result of an internal recall announced before the ban.
The food giant said in a statement that the noodles were completely safe, but explained that “recent developments and unfounded concerns about the product have led to an environment of confusion for the consumer”.
The company also said that it had voluntarily “decided to withdraw the product off the shelves, despite the product being safe”. The question now is what the future of the brand will be in India, a market that it has performed strongly in for over three decades.
The ‘noodle of India’, if I may call it that, has taken a bad beating. The country’s television channels are now focusing on the brand and its apparent ‘misdeeds’. Consumers are up in arms and activists are hyperactive.
The government is now involved and Maggi tested positive for lead far beyond the FSSAI limit. The FSSAI is a new law under a new government; keen to establish itself as superior to the old Prevention of Food Adulteration Act 1954. New jingoism and politics are at play.
This is the era of social media: the news has gone viral in India and the Maggi disaster was a media event. MSG is an old and contentious issue here—it is seen to be literally a poison in India. Maggi has been hauled up for what could be construed as ‘clever labelling’. The packs say: “No added MSG.”
Maggi is from the Nestlé stable. Although Nestlé has been in India for more than a century and is as Indian as it comes, it is still seen as a Swiss MNC with deep profits and pockets. There is jingoism on this count as well. Goliath will always be hammered in a country where there are many, many waiting Davids.
Child nutrition is another big subject ahead. As India wakes up to this, Maggi and similar brands will be socially ostracised. The brand needs to rectify its soft-underbelly on this count, if any.
As the axiom goes, ‘tough times don’t last, tough people do’. Indeed, the issue isn’t so much about the crisis that Maggi is in, than how it has been handled. Here is what would have mattered for Maggi and its loyal consumer base.
Speed of response: time today is measured in social-media seconds; the first thing that consumers expect from the brand or a company is a wave of hand to say, “I am there.” Nestlé, for whatever reason, didn’t respond as swiftly as the conversations were building up.
Authenticity: when Nestlé did respond it was a two-line boilerplate communication, which was also used as an auto tweet to any comment that mentioned Maggi. That is the last thing consumers want when their trust already been questioned.
In today’s times, it’s okay for brands to confess that they don’t have all the answers, to tell people that we are still to draw our conclusions. But millions of people, who have grown up on the brand, deserve to hear what their trusted brand has to say—in a voice that’s authentic and honest.
Human face: a crisis such as this cannot be handled through press releases. It needs a human face, someone showing compassion and who looks in control. No one from Nestlé stood up to take responsibility—if of the allegations, then at least of the crisis.