Any manufacturer changing a popular product should plan for complaints from some customers. But even a company with an issue-rich history like Nestlé appeared to underestimate the strength and rancour of opposition from angry mothers in Australia.
The issue began when Nestlé made a small change in the recipe for Nan HA 1 Gold infant formula, which followed introduction of an improved manufacturing process. The change was introduced in more than 60 countries around the world, apparently without any public concern about a problem.
But in Australia the change triggered a torrent of complaints from parents of young children. Angry mums claimed online that the “new improved” recipe was making their babies sick, and described a catalogue of ill-effects they attributed to the changed product, including restlessness, eczema, excessive crying, reflux, poor appetite, convulsions, foul motions and constipation. The story then migrated to the mainstream media, triggering further complaints and comments. This was followed by creation of a Facebook page calling for the product to be withdrawn.
For its part, Nestlé in Australia met the campaign by classic issue management with all the conventional steps. They turned to independent third party experts – the New South Wales Food Authority – to declare that it complied with all safety and regulatory requirements; they posted a link to the NSWFA conclusion on their own website; they stated that none of the ingredients were associated with the ill-effects claimed; they provided some refunds; and they repeated the key message that babies sometimes don’t respond well to any change in diet, formula or otherwise.
Yet they failed to adequately communicate to a largely hostile audience why the change had been made – an improved manufacturing process to produce better solubility and flavour; or that the change from calcium chloride to potassium chloride introduced an ingredient already used in many other baby formula products in Australia and across the world.
However this was no conventional issue. The marketing of baby formula is governed by an Australian agreement which an industry expert says severely limits the ability of companies to communicate directly with consumers unless they initiate the contact, such as via Twitter or a call centre. This in turn made it even more difficult to respond to an issue which was largely a social media construct, sustained by only limited sections of the news media. Then of course there was the reality that a globally implemented change by a multinational giant was highly unlikely to be reversed in Australia.
Although the incident may not yet be over, some lessons can be drawn:
• Identify and plan for all potential risks when changing a product – both real and perceived
• Establish opportunities for one to one communication wherever practical
• Accept that some complainants will never be satisfied, regardless of the facts
• Try to develop layman’s explanations – even when the facts are technical and complex
• Recognise and engage to address the link between social media and conventional news outlets
FOOTNOTE: An expert Committee established by the NSW Government, including the Chief Health Officer and Chief Paediatrician, issued its report this week. The report said independent testing by the NSW Food Authority confirmed there are no food safety issues with the new recipe, and there is no reason to believe the new formulation is physically harmful to children. The statement has been posted on the activist website, but only time will tell whether anything can change the perceptions of angry mums.