Sophie Chen
Sep 10, 2013

Updated: NTUC FairPrice’s 'pretentious' expat dinner event draws fire

SINGAPORE – When a friendly dinner invite from expats turned out to be a set-up by NTUC FairPrice to promote a new food section, Singaporeans felt cheated and took their criticism online.

Last month, a German couple, Dana and Stefan, posted an open invitation on YouTube, inviting six Singaporeans for a homemade dinner at their house in Singapore, to express their gratitude for the country and local people.  

The invitation received positive responses from more than 400 people. However, it was later revealed that the event was a marketing promotion from NTUC FairPrice Finest Festival for its new ‘Finest' food section.

The 'fake' event has led to a very real backlash. Many people felt cheated by NTUC Fairprice and left their criticism on Facebook, such as the following two examples:

“The worst thing was I took the time out to write them an email thanking them for their act of social graciousness. I got a reply from them but only now do I know it is a set-up. I'm very disappointed.”

“So I heard they are paid actors to ‘act’ in our own home-grown supermarket advertisement? Singaporeans are not ‘finest’ enough for NTUC Fairprice Finest?”

The dinner event hosted by the German couple was one of four dinner parties organised by NTUC Fairprice. The other three events, hosted by three Italian friends, one French guy and one Japanese lady, received fewer than 10 responses.

“When a campaign is launched, the brand has no control over the reactions, but it can—and should—control the response to the reactions it receives,” Sanjana Chappalli, digital marketing director for Asia-Pacific at Lewis PR, told Campaign Asia-Pacific. “NTUC could have done a much better job of responding to the responses.”

She said the campaign idea was interesting and probably wouldn’t have backfired if NTUC had revealed at the launch that the dinner invitation was part of the FairPrice Finest Festival.

Miguel Bernas, director of digital marketing at SingTel, agreed that NTUC had a nice idea. “If they had been transparent about their involvement from the start, I believe consumers would have reacted positively,” he told Campaign Asia-Pacific. “It's never a good idea for brands to hide their intentions behind 'real' consumers. When the public inevitably finds out, their tactics are regarded as a Trojan Horse and resentment is the typical reaction."

Ryan Lim, business director at Blugrapes, agreed. “As a local brand, NTUC should be aware of its local identity and how people react to it. There is nothing wrong with the creative concept, but the lousy execution shows the brand pretended to be something that it’s not. This makes the brand not genuine and makes people question the credibility of the campaign.”

Another crucial lesson: Make sure all different assets of a campaign (in this case, videos) are branded on the different social-media channels. “This would make it very clear that the assets reveal at first glance that they are part of a campaign,” Chappalli said.

She said there has to be an immediate clarification or response to the backlash and the negative responses, as people need to know that a brand is listening and is taking note of their reactions and comments.

Last week, NTUC Income also drew criticism, for a controversial commercial for an insurance offering, which offended insurance agents. The company had to take the ad down and apologise.

Update (11 September, 9 am):

This story initially reported that NTUC FairPrice had not issued any statement by the time of publication yesterday. In fact the brand had responded to some comments on Facebook.

NTUC FairPrice issued a statement late yesterday. The brand said its intention was to "stimulate people‘s interest in sharing and experiencing other culture and cuisine" and to allow "people from diverse backgrounds to interact and better appreciate differences and commonalities through food."

The company planned a series of four dinners and invited people from different nationalities to volunteer as hosts. The finalists were a German couple working as scientists, a French chef, three Italian friends and a Japanese language teacher. The finalists volunteered to prepare an authentic home-cooked meal unique to their culture.

An open dinner invitation was sent out via social media to find interested guests. "The first invitation video was launched unbranded so as to engage interest and promote the idea organically," the company said. "This approach is not new and is similar is [sic] an unbranded advertisement in generating interest. FairPrice Finest was introduced after the first dinner was hosted and with the other video invitations to inform everyone about the objective for the dinners—which is to promote a culture of sharing and bonding through food—Singapore's favourite pastime."

The company also stressed that the guests were all informed at the dinners that the initiative was part of the Finest Festival.

The company emphasised that the approach has "a strong link to the brand's DNA" and to Singapore’s culture. "The dinners were not staged but rather crowd sourced and found through open invitations—both hosts and guests who attended were not paid actors but genuine participants that signed up based on their common passion of bonding over food. We have communicated this continuously throughout all our communication."

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