The Maggi Noodles Ban - A half a billion dollar PR crisis!
1980s was a time when Smartphones and food delivery apps were still science fiction, and the ready-to-eat consumables market was almost non-existent in India. The Indian middle class mother used to have a tough time managing both cooking for the family and reaching her workplace on time. Maggi truly came as a savior in 1983. Branding itself as the ‘2-minute noodles’, Maggi won the hearts of children and youngsters alike, and went on to gain 80% market share in the second most populous country on this planet.
To put the market share figure into context, India consumed over 5,300 million packets of instant noodles in 2016, out of which about 4,200 million packets were Maggi!
Over the next 3 decades, Maggi became a part of India’s folklore. It had all the ingredients (literally) for becoming successful. The inimitable taste, extremely affordable price (10 cents for a small packet in US currency terms) and far reaching distribution network soon made Maggi a generic brand in the instant noodles category. It is really a complicated and difficult task to describe what Maggi truly means to Indians. Innumerable people have made a living by making and selling Maggi (adding their own innovative twists such as mayo, schezwan sauce etc.), friends have used rainy days as an excuse to meet up and cook Maggi together, and late night cravings were satiated by consuming a packet of this golden food. You can find it inside college canteens, at shacks on top of the mountains, and at nondescript dhabas (small food joints by the national highways)!
First: Eating Maggi on a hilltop. Second: A street-food cart selling Maggi noodles
Let me share an incident which will probably give you a slight glimpse into the Maggi noodle craze in India. On 15th August, 2018, just a couple of weeks before moving to Seattle I had gone for a trek a few hours outskirts of Mumbai, somewhere in the Sahayadris. It was an unfriendly day for a trek - the incline was steep, the path was absolutely slippery and rocky, and it was raining heavily. Somehow my friends and I reached up top after a few hours, and found a small open hut. Wanting to dry ourselves and maybe find some chai, we approached the person inside. He was making chai and Maggi.
My friends and I, drenched, waiting for hot Maggi to be served inside the makeshift hut.
What went wrong - A Timeline
On 10th March 2014, food safety officer Sanjay Singh left from office for his routine round of inspection. But instead of cracking down on street food vendors, he went inside a supermarket and picked up a packet of Maggi. The ‘No added MSG’ label caught his attention, and he sent the packet to a lab for testing, thus kicking off what soon became a national scandal.
Maggi was found to contain MSG (monosodium glutamate), an ingredient that although is legal, requires warning on the packet. Also, it is unsuitable for consumption among pregnant women and children under the age of 12. The label ‘No Added MSG’ was a branding and advertising violation. Below is a timeline of what happened over the next 15 months following this first testing -
January to April 2015 – A second sample of Maggi was received and analyzed over the next 4 months, a time period that was beyond the product’s shelf life.
April 2015 – A government lab stated that they had detected both lead and MSG in quantities above the permissible limit. The concentration of lead was found to be 7 times higher at 17.4 parts/million, and 1,000 times higher than what Nestle Maggi claimed on its packaging.
1st June 2015 – Maggi contested these lab reports, and asked for a re-test. Meanwhile, a new batch of samples was sent to a government lab in Kolkata for testing, and the national government asked each of India’s states and union territories to carry out independent testing of Maggi. New Delhi, the capital of India, found excess lead in 13 samples and the Health Minister of State announced that Maggi would be banned for 2 weeks.
4th June 2015 –2 days after Maggi was banned in Delhi, Nestle’s Worldwide CEO Paul Bulcke arrived in India and met the chairman of FSSAI (Food Safety and Standards Authority of India) along with the board of Nestle India. They discussed issues ranging from lead to the misbranding of ‘No Added MSG’. On the same day, all the other states banned Maggi after some samples in other states were found to be contaminated with lead.
5th June 2015 – Nestle India voluntarily recalled all the packets of Maggi from every point of sale in India. 37,000 tons of Maggi was recalled and incarcerated at various sites across the country.
13th August 2015 – The Bombay High Court lifted the ban on Maggi’s sales in India, after testing over 90 different samples in accredited laboratories.
Pic: One of the lab test reports
Challenges faced by Nestle Maggi
Indian citizens swore by Maggi, such was their love for this snack. Moms fed their children Maggi when they came back home from their evening session of sports, lovers would cook this for each other on rainy evenings, and it was a comfort food for the lone worker slogging it off in office late at night. When this crisis emerged, the entire country felt let down. Everyone took to social media in order to complain how they felt betrayed. After all, India and Maggi shared an emotional connection.
News Agencies and Media outlets across the country called for a nationwide ban on Maggi, and also demanded that Maggi’s worldwide CEO be put behind bars. They swayed the sentiments of a country of 1.2 billion people against a brand that the citizens so dearly loved.
Pic: A news piece in the Times of India
Celebrities and Influencers
Celebrities and Influencers started tweeting against Maggi, further exacerbating the issue. In India celebrities are considered demi-Gods, and any word that comes from them is taken very seriously by their fans. Influencers capitalized on this issue by creating memes, thereby ensuring that the incident was never out of the public eye.
How did Nestle Maggi communicate?
Every incident was responded to with a Press Release on the company’s official website. They even created a special FAQs section for addressing this crisis.
Maggi actively engaged with all the stakeholders on Twitter. They responded to the queries, pacified the concern of parents, and defended any false claims that arose from the Twitter handles of news agencies.
Maggi ran a simultaneous crisis management campaign on Facebook as well as Twitter. Every consumer concern directed to the page, and all the negative comments in the comments section of posts were replied to on time.
TV, Print, and Web Commercials
Maggi released a series of commercials on Television, and on YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook to address this issue and communicate how Maggi was, is, and will always be safe.
Analysis of their PR crisis management
There were a lot of things that Nestle Maggi did right when they were engulfed in the crisis. Highlighting some of the most important ones –
Timely response – Whenever there was any news surrounding Maggi, the communication team was quick to put up a Tweet and a Facebook message clearing the facts. Initially, when there were still talks of Maggi being recalled, Nestle Maggi put up a post saying that the noodles have not been recalled from the market.
Having a single talking point – Maggi always had a single point of communication, and a single talking point. There were never multiple or contradictory statements from people within the company. It regularly gave out press releases, and almost all of them were consistent with the previous releases.
Nestle Maggi also covered a lot of facets from the Art of Good Apology, a PR classic:
Maggi put up a dedicated FAQ section on its website answering some of the most common queries surrounding this issue. They put up information about this section on their Twitter and Facebook accounts as well.
Maggi was very well aware of the sentiments Indians attached with the brand. It did some social media listening and figured out that Indians were missing Maggi. It came out with a campaign called ‘We Miss You Too’, which struck gold. It made Indians miss Maggi even more, and they couldn’t wait for its return.
Nestle Maggi’s statements were very concise, to the point, and rarely spanned more than a few small paragraphs. They were easily digestible and understood by the public and the courts alike.
Maggi always ensured that their statements didn’t leave room for more questions. Their communications team kept releasing statements as soon as there was any new development.
On 7th November, 2015, just a day before India’s biggest festival Diwali, Maggi made a comeback, albeit online! It tied up with an Indian e-commerce giant, and sold exclusively through that website for a few weeks. Needless to say, the packets went out of stock as soon as they arrived. Currently, Maggi has regained 60% market share in the instant noodles category, and the stock price of Nestle is higher than it was before the debacle. Both of these are sure indicators of success.
I had originally presented this case study to a class three-fourths full of Americans, and one-fourth full of far East Asian classmates. I had fun explaining to them what Maggi truly means to Indians by means of various images of Maggi being served and consumed in different situations. I have modified this case study to suit my blog, and have included a lot more information, pictorial cues, and statistical graphs.
What's your favorite Maggi memory?