Earlier this month,‘The Economic Times’, carried a series of front-page stories around ‘Big Food’- a clear signal that the Maggi crisis has blown open the space for scrutiny of the food business in India.
The drivers of this increased attention are consumers, employees, NGOs, technical experts and social activists.
Kavita Lakhani, president, LinOpinion GH & executive vice president, Lowe Lintas + Partners, explains, “ Companies don’t own their brand any more than its fans and everyday consumers, own it. Customers are smarter and more demanding than previous generations of shoppers. They are quick to praise and even quicker to criticize.”
What to do in a crisis?
Food - especially fast food - in India could be heading the same way as tobacco did in the US a few decades ago where regulatory and public scrutiny led to major policy changes.
There is a lot of scrutiny around food in developed nations such as the US. This trend is already being seen in India as well. This also means an opportunity for PR with its natural quality of multi-way storytelling.
Experts advise PR professionals caught in a food crisis is to look and plan for signs of trouble, to be transparent and quick in their responses.
Subhash Pais, founder and business head - i9 Communications, says, “I sympathize with brands especially in the consumer space who are most vulnerable to social media 'hijacking', although I think brands will eventually learn to separate the wheat from the chaff and counter the same.”
Pais says its important not to be caught like a deer in headlights , he offers a blunt piece of counsel saying, “Slam the phone down on the idiot who says, "Let’s go aggressive and take out a full page spread in all of tomorrow's newspapers."
Lakhani too has strong views on brands that do not prepare for issues that could hit them. She terms lack of crisis planning as criminal corporate negligence saying that, “Risk assessment, formulation of online and offline response strategies, principled management of media and other stakeholders must become integral to the annual business planning cycle for all industries and brands.”
Are clients in India prepared for a crisis?
Lakhani feels, “Evolved marketers have invested in some level of issue preparedness. However, majority of them - including large MNC brands - have not and hence have suffered significant reputation risks during public issues, in the recent past.”
There are some experts who feel that food companies do take their responsibilities very seriously, pointing out that larger companies in fact have to be more responsible to their customers given their size and the marketing that goes into their products.
Customer today are hungry to know the story about the food they eat, where did the ingredients come from, what was the journey of a particular food brand.
This makes PR with its tool kit of storytelling, experiential marketing along with strong relationships with third party influencers a particularly strong weapon in a crisis.
Pais concurs that brands are preparing for crisises. Pais feels, “The food industry seems to have taken cognizance of the Maggi crisis and most of the brands I know that did not have proper representation are either strengthening on that side by appointing agencies or the ones that already have an agency are looking to forge a closer relationship with their existing ones.”
Given the rising number of food start-ups from grocery delivery sites such as Bigbasket, Localbanya and cooking services such as InnerChef, Subhash says that, “ The food industry is currently seeing a lot of interest from PE funds and VC's and it would do no harm for them to take PR seriously. Quite a few of them have while some others, even though slowly are following suit.”
Is PR being undersold?
Clearly there is a slow move towards focusing on PR for authentic brand storytelling. But is it enough? Pais feels part of the problem is the way integrated marketing communications is structured which ends up eroding the role of PR in the overall marketing communications mix.
Pais has strong views on this issue. He says, “ A couple of days ago I heard a friend who is a director with a large communications group say "Since PR is so low in cost to the client we find it easy to subsidize in our bouquet of services offered as a package". “
Says Pais, “ The hyper competition and the low entry barrier makes PR the dentistry equivalent of the communications space.”
Pais also says the buck does stop with the brand manager, “I feel only a moron would buy PR subsidized or for free. You wouldn't do that if you were looking for a consulting firm, or an underwriter or legal counsel; then why take that route with PR and put your brand at such a risk? They know exactly what they are getting and cannot shrug off their responsibility if the agency offered in the bouquet of services by the IMC does not perform when needed.”
Other related food sectors that could be under public scrutiny soon
According to Kavita Lakhani, the next round of regulatory alarm is likely to hit the special dietary sector, which is expected to cross $6 billion by 2020, from a little over $2 billion now.
She says, “ This includes manufacturers of health supplements, special dietary foods, nutraceutical products and energy drinks. It is learnt the regulator is watching the space for action, especially as demand for quick-fix dietary solutions is on the rise because of changing lifestyles. “