It looks like mission control: In a Swiss market town, an array of screens in Nestle’s headquarters tracks online sentiment. Executives watch intently as California wakes up, smells the coffee — and says whether it likes it.
This is the nerve centre of the company’s Digital Acceleration Team. By monitoring conversation about its products on social media — right down to “realtime recipe tweets” across the United States — they aim to win over a sometimes hostile world.
Other companies, such as PepsiCo, Danone and Unilever, have exploited the opportunities to promote themselves online. But Nestle is also concentrating on using social media for damage limitation.
Vilified for years for its sales of baby milk formula in developing countries, Nestle today is confronting its critics online as protesters find newer targets, such as the company’s $7 billion-a-year bottled water business. The $200-billion food and beverage group set up its digital team a year ago, and says it has doubled spending on social media advertising in the last couple of years.
“People have been complaining about companies forever, but before they did it at the water cooler or at the bar,” said Bernhard Warner, co-founder of London-based consultancy Social Media Influence. “Now they are doing it online and spreading their complaints to disparate communities.”
Nestle is not the only bottled water producer under fire. Others including Coca-Cola are also accused of undermining public water systems. Groups such as Boston-based Corporate Accountability International, a non-profit which originated in the protests against Nestle’s infant formula, have alleged for almost a decade that bottled water makers damage the environment when they extract the water, waste resources on bottles and shipping, and take what should be a common good.
The fight matters a lot to Nestle, as it’s the world’s largest producer of bottled water. Its brands include Poland Spring, Perrier and San Pellegrino and accounted for almost 8% of its sales of 83.6 billion Swiss francs in 2011.
In 2008 it ran an advertisement in Canada claiming that “bottled water is the most environmentally responsible consumer product in the world”. Campaigners in North America have nonetheless persuaded tens of thousands of people to sign a ‘Think outside the bottle’ pledge to drink water from the tap, and pushed some US campuses and municipal buildings to ban the bottled variety.
At HQ, Nestle’s team of Digital Accelerators is tasked with “listening, engaging, transforming and inspiring”. Each member spends eight-month stints working in the