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Nestle has been in the media a lot lately. And not because of its delicious new Kit Kat flavors. The company has come under fire for using questionable palm oil suppliers for its products. And while the candy giant may be new to social media, it has learned quickly that if you're going to join the social media game, you have to play by its rules.

After about two months of taking flack on Facebook, Twitter and with real world protests, Nestle has finally relented and bowed down to Greenpeace, and all of its demands on the palm oil issue.

Like Unilever and Kraft before it, Nestle has been getting palm oil from a company called Sinar Mas that has been accused of clearing rainforest land without permits. Unilever and Kraft saved themselves a big headache by severing ties. When Nestle's efforts to find more sustainable palm oil suppliers proved too slow to suit Greenpeace's tastes, the organization launched an all out shock campaign against the company on Facebook and YouTube.

As I wrote earlier in this saga, Nestle did not handle the situation well on Facebook. Deleting posts and threatening trademark infringement is not the way to quiet a social media revolt.

However, after a certain point, it is hard to maintain any arguement over the din of a shouting crowd. And that's what Nestle has learned. The company announced Monday that it would start working with the non-profit Forest Trust to ensure its sourcing of palm oil does not contribute to illegal rainforest and peatland deforestation.

Greenpeace was quick to take credit. According to a statement from the group's U.K. division:

"With nearly 1.5 million views of our Kit Kat advert, over 200,000 emails sent, hundreds of phone calls and countless Facebook comments, you made it clear to Nestle that it had to address the problems with the palm oil and paper products it buys. Greenpeace campaigners have met several times with Nestle executives to discuss the problems with sourcing of palm oil and paper products. It certainly seemed like things were moving forward in these discussions. But we didn't expect Nestle to come up with such a comprehensive 'zero deforestation' policy so quickly."

Before Greenpeace's blanket social media campaign, Nestle had planned to make its palm oil products 100% sustainable by 2015. Currently, they use about 18% non-sustainable palm oil.

Nestle's Facebook page now has a debate going on over Nestle's design to cater to Greenpeace's demands. But many of the comments are impressed by Nestle's decision. Either way, it's a whole lot more civil than the page looked two months ago.

And yet, some of the commenters bring up a good point. As one antagonistic commenter puts it:

"They should cut down more trees, not less. show these idiot protesters that their boycotts mean NOTHING, since they are an incredibly small minority in the world market and always will be." It is likely true that angry Facebook commenters represent a small fraction of Nestle's total customers. But as big corporations wade into social media, it's becoming clear that some fights are not worth the bad publicity. This campaign struck a chord with social media mavens. And groups like Greenpeace are becoming adept at using new digital media to appeal to the emotions of consumers. As social media becomes a more powerful tool, lobbying groups have the potential to become truly dangerous. Regardless of whether Nestle was trying to become more eco-friendly, Greenpeace decided it wasn't moving fast enough. And social media mavens easily swayed by emotional videos don't always do background research. In this case, it's not entirely clear where the pre-approved palm oil will come from. According to The Guardian:

"Several large companies - including Nestlé, Unilever, Kraft and Tesco - have made commitments to source 100% "certified sustainable palm oil" by 2015. But according to Poynton, such policies are weakened by uncertainty about which sources of palm oil are suitable to use."

Corporations are seen as greedy, profit motivated organizations by groups like Greenpeace. And while social media can be used to great effect to force a company into making drastic changes, it can also be easily abused. Making angry comments on Facebook and Twitter to get companies to change is easy for consumers. Regardless of whether those decisions are sustainable for the companies making them.

Image: Muriel Philippi's Facebook page
Meghan Keane

Published 18 May, 2010 by Meghan Keane

Based in New York, Meghan Keane is US Editor of Econsultancy. You can follow her on Twitter: @keanesian.

721 more posts from this author

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Sabine

Nestle should count it's blessings that social media wasn't around in the 80's with the milk powder scandal. The mommy bloggers would go ballistic.

over 6 years ago

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Richard Stacy

This wasn't really the case of a small group of activists or social media mavens acting in isoltation to force a corporation to change what it was doing.  The activists knew that they were operating with the broad consent of the majority of consumers.  If they did not have this consent the campaign would not have worked.  It wasn't that the majority of consumers were particularly worried about palm oil - but they were concerned just enought to push them over the line.  This is the big issue with activism and social media - the mass can now be moved and they only have to be moved a tiny little bit to create the necessary force for change.

over 6 years ago

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Michael H

I can't really add much to any conversation here, because the article says it all - ignore social media and how it works at your peril. How Nestle played it initially was inconsistent with all reason, logic, and a basic misunderstanding of both a) how the web works, and b) the Streisand effect. Had someone with understanding of this in their marketing structure stepped in earlier, they would have been able to mute the attack and deal with the problem on the companies terms. Because they didn't, Greenpeace was able to belt the living daylights out of their existing reduction strategy and get to the point where it changed the strategy for Nestle. As for user internet marketing - spam much? Your post has no relevance to this topic whatsoever.

over 6 years ago

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Cross Crosslet

Richard Stacy is right. The reason Nestle take campaigns like Greenpeace's seriously is because a) Greenpeace represents millions of people worldwide and has the tacit support of scores of millions more and b) Nestle's own workforce don't want to work for a company percieved by so many people as bad. Further, most successful companies take a long-term view, and so are actually quite open to arguments around sustainability.

over 6 years ago

Ed Stivala

Ed Stivala, Managing Director at n3w media

I think it is easy to overstate the current significance of social media, it's really ability to influence and create change outside of the close knit, SMALL and passionate community that often use it around a certain topic. Also, it is easy to dramatise Nestle's handling of social media. Actually it probably all boils down to nothing very much at all and certainly of no real consequence in the grand scheme of things at this time to their business. 

Certainly not saying ignore this channel, but I do think that it is easy to be part of the social media noise and believe that it is having a much bigger impact than it really is. 

I noted with interest, that as far as I can determine, none of this social media fuss has moved the Nestle share price and I would be very interested to see any offline research that clearly shows consumer attitude towards the brand having actually changed. It would be pointless asking the relatively small number of people on their fan page. 

Clearly Greenpeace do seem to have been successful on this occasion in achieving their goals. But social media was just one weapon that they wielded (skilfully), in my opinion the real reason they achieved their objective is due to their "skill" as a global lobbying organisation. My point being they would have been just as successful without social media. 

over 6 years ago

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Jamie Woolley

As one of the team working on the Greenpeace campaign, I'm not sure we'd have had the same success without the social media element. We certainly had other elements (direct actions and communications, corporate lobbying and so on). But in years gone by NGOs have had to rely on traditional media and face-to-face campaigning on the street to alert people to campaign issues; now we can communicate directly with millions worldwide and ask them to do something about the problem in question.

There's certainly a danger that, in situations like the Facebook storm, the signal-to-noise ratio is reduced, but again that was just one (albeit very public) outcome of our campaign. In addition, over 300,000 emails were sent by concerned Nestle customers to the top brass, thousands of phone calls were placed to its customer service lines globally, and we've been canvassing campaign ideas from supporters. That kind of response would be extremely hard to achieve (maybe even impossible, certainly on the same time scale) without social media, never mind the internet itself.

And being able to act with the consent of our supporters does carry significant weight - it doesn't always work, but the Greenpeace brand certainly has its own reputation built up over the last 40 years.

A word on sustainable palm oil - it is a fraught area and traceability is hard, but the aim has always been to change the industry as a whole so there isn't any palm oil being produced at the expense of Indonesia's rainforests.

over 6 years ago

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fetion

I can't really add much to any conversation here, because the article says it all - ignore social media and how it works at your peril.

over 6 years ago

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Steve

I worked for Nestle years ago and they were the most political company imaginable. Its interesting to see that while most of the faces will have changed their culture of deceipt hasn't.

over 6 years ago

Alec Kinnear

Alec Kinnear, Creative Director at Foliovision

This is how social media is supposed to work.

Catch somebody at dirty work and force him/her to clean up his/her act.

Nice example, Meghan.

Nestle had two choice. Solve the problem now with minimal damage or take a big hit later. Unlike stick your head in the sand Ostrich Stivala above.

Good work, Greenpeace. Good call, Nestle.

over 6 years ago

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over 6 years ago

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