Nestled in controversy, brand Maggi in a soup

MUMBAI: Nestled in controversy over the presence of lead beyond permissible limits in its popular noodle brand Maggi, Nestle India has found itself in a soup. As Barkha Dutt tweeted, it could well be “The Two Minute death of a brand #Maggi.”

What’s more, a domino effect followed immediately with the recent detection of creepy-crawlies in Nestle’s other food product Nan Pro-3.

A brand being embroiled in controversy is not something new with the likes of Cadburys and cola companies having faced similar problems in the not so distant past. About a decade ago, there was uproar over worms being found in Cadbury chocolates. On that note, the company said that most stores in India at that time didn’t have refrigerators and that had affected the product. Similarly cola brands were hit with the pesticide crisis in early 2000, which wiped off their growth for over two years.

In testing times like these for brand Maggi, the big question on everyone’s lips is… could this hullabaloo well sound the death knell for the brand, which has been around in India for decades?

Speaking to about the controversy, Kwan Entertainment & Marketing Solutions COO Indranil Das Blah strongly believed that if Maggi is being held accountable, so should the government, for the simple reason that it has been approved by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), which is a government body.

“I don’t think it’s the death of the brand in India. They’ve been around for about two decades now. A lot of brands have faced similar controversies, be it the cola brands or various food companies. Having said that, it has been approved by the FSSAI, which is why it is available in the market in the first place. Maybe a certain batch had certain excess content of lead and that is something that the judiciary should decide,” Blah said.

Harish Bijoor Consultants CEO Harish Bijoor opined, “It’s a big shock for Maggi. The trauma is for the consumers as well because they love the brand so much.”

According to Blah, while the controversy will definitely cause immediate damage to the brand, in the long run the brand is strong enough to survive if the allegations are proven false. “Unless there is firm evidence and a court order is passed, which is not in favour of Maggi, I don’t think it’s the death of the brand,” he added.

Pertinent to note here is that all FMCG products especially food items go through stringent manufacturing processes as well as government approvals. Blah is of the opinion that it never hurts to be extra careful and hence the Maggi fiasco should serve as a wakeup call for other FMCG giants.

While there have been discussions about the nutrition value of Maggi for years now, it hasn’t really hurt the brand and Nestle India has gone about producing it without a hitch riding on its taste quotient.

What’s more, with the involvement of big celebrities like Amitabh Bachchan and Madhuri Dixit as brand endorsers, the matter has been highlighted even more. It is a well-known fact that celebrities are soft targets whenever there is a controversy brewing.

When queried about whether it was fair to drag celebrities into the controversy, renowned photographer and founder of celebrity management firm Bling! Entertainment Solutions, Atul Kasbekar said, “I believe it's an irrational act to go after the endorsers. While stars and their managers question the brand fits and ask relevant questions at the beginning of any relationship, it's unreasonable to hold an endorser responsible for episodes like this. Already contracts have strong two way indemnity clauses in place; I guess they'd be stronger now and spend more billable legal hours in the process. I cannot imagine that there's a single celeb out there who would've declined a Nestle brand to be honest. I don't imagine that's going to change very much.”

Concurring with Kasbekar, Blah said, “When a celebrity is endorsing a product, he is lending his name and his image to it. He is not involved in any other activity of the product. All he is doing is attracting eyeballs for the brand. If he were involved in the making of the product, then it would have been justified. But after they endorse a finished product, one can’t hold them responsible. If one batch goes wrong then it is not the celebrity’s responsibility, it is the company’s and the government’s responsibility as they have approved the product. It’s not fair to drag celebrities in this,” he said.

Bijoor is of the opinion that the first thing that Nestle India will do is sort out the issue with the regulators and various states. “After that they will start addressing the consumer and that is when a lot of credibility building advertising will come from Maggi. Maggi is a highly evolved brand in India. They need to communicate with a different degree of tenacity with the consumers and they will do that,” he voiced.

While celebs have been a part of the controversy, Bijoor thinks that the first thing celebs will do and have done in the past is to indemnify themselves from any collateral damage that the brand faces. “Without doubt they will be more careful and diligent henceforth,” he added.

Will this one controversy also open doors to other and put other brands under the scanner? To this, Bijoor said, “This is just one category. If you look at the other categories like tea, frozen food, fresh vegetables, fish, poultry and meat that we eat; you will be shocked to find that the content of chemicals and metals is much higher than permissible limits across the world. So this is a major reaction on Maggi. This paints the entire industry with the same brush.”

Sharing her thoughts on the controversy, PromaxBDA Africa and Asia Pacific country head Rajika Mitra said, “For the brand Maggi, it has created a huge setback and for Nestle, the brand integrity has been hugely impacted. The brand image of Maggi has witnessed a major dent in its popularity.”

Mitra further added that Nestle would have an uphill task to build customer confidence and re-launch the brand in a completely new avatar, which might take years.

“Celebs have been drawn into this controversy in a big way. Big brands and celebrity associations have always been a popular feature and they do feel responsible for the brands that they accept and endorse. Henceforth, they will be more cautious when accepting such brands in future,” she said.

It may be recalled that as part of its damage control exercise after the worm controversy, Cadburys India came up with new packaging, which would keep the product fresh and intact without refrigeration. However, it is a known fact that chocolates need to be refrigerated, the question is: Why did Cadbury wait for the worm controversy to change its packaging?

While Kasbekar believes that this controversy will be a blip in the progress of this superbrand, the fact remains that the communication path that Nestle India will have to take for brand Maggi following this unprecedented controversial blaze will no doubt have to be powerful enough to dowse the flames.

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