Is Big Food Watching Your Step Online With Cyber Armies?
(Much of this article was originally published 2 years ago at Activist Post and is posted here with updates to provide context for current events)
Big food companies enjoy greater sales and popularity using social media. Nestle takes it even further with its state of the art Digital Acceleration Team (DAT). Tasked with “listening, engaging, transforming, inspiring,” it actually looks more like a brightly lit intelligence base complete with a TV news studio-like room.
If Nestle is the number one food company and 12th place in the Reputation Institute’s most popular brands, why would it need a special department to oversee all Internet buzz – even real-time posted recipes?
Nestle is worth $200 billion and has 6,000 brands to protect, many of which are number one in their market — A little spare change goes a long way in damage control. And Nestle is still under fire from some ongoing PR nightmares. See: Supreme Court: Former Child Slaves Used In Cocoa Production Can Sue Nestle
Nestle’s digital command center:
Reuters clarified in 2012 that Nestle follows cyber rules and also does not buy popularity or fake profiles through social media sites. It merely monitors and deploys people to respond to negative media. Within minutes, they respond to questions and criticisms all over the Net.
In one story, however, Nestle was busted for overstepping those bounds when a court fined them around $30,000 (USD) compensation for infiltrating anti-globalization activist group Attac that had campaigned against them. This time they actually hired a third party Swiss group called Securitas AG to infiltrate Attac’s meetings. A disappointed Nestle spokesman said, “that incitement to infiltration is against Nestlé’s corporate business principles”.
This isn’t too outside the realm of possibility when you consider that Monsanto deployed tactics against social media activism as far back as 2010. It was then discovered that they have ties to Blackwater, using them to infiltrate groups critical to Monsanto.
There is an ongoing Nestle boycott since 1977 for their aggressive marketing of their infant formulas, especially in underdeveloped nations where some babies reportedly died from an all formula diet. If you check out their formulas online, they now have a disclaimer that encourages breastfeeding unless necessary.
They were heavily criticized in the documentary Bottle Life because they hold the largest market for environmentally unfriendly bottled water – and that the water is basically tap – but it can come from companies that drain impoverished towns abroad of their groundwater supplies. Chairman and former CEO Peter Brabeck is careful to counter those criticisms in the Reuters report.
Here’s the trailer for Bottle Life:
Nestle’s DAT which uses software from Salesforce.com, Inc. also utilized by UPS, Dell, HP, American Red Cross, and Continental Airlines may have formed as a result of Greenpeace’s backlash at Nestle’s use of palm oil. Some companies clear forests which kill endangered orangutans and displace residents. A Greenpeace video that went viral depicted a bored office worker “taking a break” with a Kit-Kat bar that actually contained a dead orangutan finger – he crunches down and spurts blood everywhere. Nestle promised not to use companies that harmed off-limits environments for their palm oil.
A major social media backlash had ensued. Their initial response provoked more anger and was involved in a book about social media gaffes. Now, they’ve redoubled their efforts and doubled their social media expenditures.
Yet, as of 2016, they have been steeped in at least two more scandals worldwide. Draining precious aquifers in a drought-stricken California and revelations of childhood slaves. In the UK, they are no longer allowed to advertise that Nesquik is a “great start to the day.”
Keeping in step with the public relations fires, Nestle turned heads by admitting their issue with using slave labor. However, as journalist Claire Bernish writes, the real reasoning has nothing to do with rights and dignity:
But the truly disingenuous motivation for Nestle’s red-handed confession was recently made all the more apparent when the Supreme Court “rejected a bid by Nestle … to throw out a lawsuit seeking to hold them liable for the use of child slaves to harvest cocoa in Ivory Coast,” reported Fortune. “The plaintiffs, who were originally from Mali, contend the companies [Archer-Daniels-Midland and Cargill were also named] aided and abetted human rights violations through their active involvement in purchasing cocoa Ivory Coast. While aware of the child slavery problem, the companies offered financial and technical assistance to local farmers in a bid to guarantee the cheapest source of cocoa, the plaintiffs said.”
Another consumer bane: their products are rife with genetically modified ingredients (GMOs) including their infant formulas which also contain synthetic vitamins. They spent $1.3 million against California’s Proposition 37 to label GM foods.
Has Nestle’s DAT paid off in greater profits? Absolutely. Pete Blackshaw, former digital brand manager for Proctor & Gamble, understands the power of PR and social media. He says: “If there is a negative issue emerging, it turns red –when there are a high number of comments… it alerts you that you need to engage.”
They are quite proud of their new, organized technology as you can in the following video where they showcase it for the public:
But are they “listening, engaging, transforming, inspiring” or are they deploying cyber soldiers and infiltrators for fire control after the damage is done? Would their resources not be better spent listening ahead of time and anticipating consumer needs instead of covering the fallout?
Reuters also reported that other “companies, such as PepsiCo, Danone and Unilever, have exploited the opportunities to promote themselves online.” It seems it is a growing trend for controversial companies, especially food companies, to combat negative comments from critics with professional cyber armies.