Business lessons learned from the Nestlé Poland Spring crisis

Jennifer Janson, author of The Reputation Playbook and chairman of Six Degrees, explores what we can learn in the aftermath of Nestlé's bottled water crisis.

In this SmallBusiness monthly series of ‘Lessons Learned’, Jennifer Janson, author of The Reputation Playbook and chairman of Six Degrees, will assess how a company recently in the news has handled a crisis, and provide top tips for small businesses to handle a similar incident in the best way possible.

David and Goliath stories always resonate well with the media. Especially when the story is about the legal battle between ‘powerless consumers’ and all-mighty corporations, but today, digital news sites and the power of social media help inflate these often unfair fights. These easily accessible public forums allow the wider public to sympathise and give their support to the weaker party – which is typically the David in the scenario. However, there are times when the news agenda might be mistaken in automatically blaming the ‘evil corporation’.

In the US, Nestlé has recently been brought to court by 11 individuals seeking redress on the claim that one of the brand’s bottled spring waters, Poland Spring, was in fact just tap water. You can shape your own opinion on whether or not Poland Spring has been deceiving its customers since 1845, but taking a quick look at Nestlé’s official statement, it seems to be an unfounded and disproven claim.

The point of this article is not, however, to debate the court case. I am quite sure that a whole team in Nestlé’s legal department is already spending enough time on that matter. What is of interest to us here is to delve deeper into the company’s reaction and learn lessons from the way it has handled the crisis.

Choose your stance and ‘own it’

In my experience, when a crisis erupts natural roles emerge in the media coverage – there’s always a victim, a villain, and a hero. The victim stance is the one you want to avoid in almost all scenarios, especially if you are a large and wealthy company such as Nestlé. You will get no sympathy from the general public if you’re a well-established ‘giant’. However, I would argue that playing the victim and fighting your corner are not too far from one another, particularly if your detractors are shading doubt on water that’s been sold since 1845.

Now, if you decide to come out fighting – which in the right circumstances is certainly a viable reaction – you have to make sure that your efforts are invested in defending your brand and your reputation. You want to stick to the facts and make your message so clear that there is no room left for any doubt about the matter. Nestlé’s statement is good. It is professional, factual and includes videos, one featuring an expert to embody the voice of the company. But the problem is the delivery.

The videos included in the statement are just too salesy. If you want to prove that you haven’t fooled your customers, you don’t want to turn the operation into another marketing campaign with soft music and slick images. What your customers want to know are the facts, and the facts alone. There is no need to overdo it. Include simple links in your statement leading to relevant information, or create a brand-new video removing the marketing lens. Don’t use a crisis as a chance to promote your product (though the way you deal with a crisis is certainly an opportunity to turn detractors into fans of your business).

Bring your legal team in

This might be stating the obvious but, in a situation such as this, I would strongly advise against issuing an official statement without prior consultation with your legal team. There is simply too much at stake. Even if the accusations against your products are unfounded, the opposing party will be more than ready to make the most of a rash move that was not thought out properly. And you don’t want to be wishing you could retract your statement halfway through the court case when it’s used against you.

Coordinating your communications and legal teams is the best way to make sure that the crisis is handled swiftly and effectively. I very much doubt that Nestlé put its statement together without asking a lawyer for its two cents. It’s natural for a large business to do this, but perhaps not so for an SME. The only caveat is that you still need to be prepared to act fast.

Be transparent and stay transparent

When someone casts doubt on the authenticity of one of your products, transparency is your greatest ally. Gathering and communicating the facts should always be the first course of action. You want to gather momentum around proving the accusations wrong and show your customers that they were right to trust you. Feel free to communicate with your stakeholders directly – it is best if these wars aren’t waged in the mainstream media if it can be avoided.

In this kind of situation, the goal of the game will always be to show that you have nothing to hide. It is still a bit early to say, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Nestlé getting a third-party involved to verify and back the company’s claims that the product is genuine. They would also be able to prove compliance with current regulations. Adding an independent voice to the debate is often the best way to add weight to your arguments and squash the media cycle.

If you find yourself in a similar predicament, I would recommend engaging with your customers as part of a long-term campaign to educate and inspire trust in your brand. Delve deeper into your products, offer insight on ‘behind the scenes’ and engage with people. This can be done offline or on social media for example. The objective, of course, is to avoid that situation repeating itself.

Jennifer Janson is author of The Reputation Playbook and chairman of Six Degrees. 

Further reading on reputation management

Ben Lobel

Ben Lobel

Ben Lobel was the editor of from 2010 to 2018. He specialises in writing for start-up and scale-up companies in the areas of finance, marketing and HR.

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