Just two months ago, Nestle India seemed to have found a windfall in an earthquake. Within hours of the devastating tremors that rocked Nepal, it faced a demand to supply as many as 200,000 packets of its Maggi noodles as aid from India.
Now, it is struggling to keep sales afloat – even on its own campus — for its iconic Chinese snack of Swiss parentage after some tests showed that the much-loved instant noodle contained seven times the permissible level of lead.
Swift bans by a string of state governments, and an outrage across social media have shaken the conservative Swiss company out of a famous media slumber. It advertises its ware loudly but rarely speaks to journalists.
The shock was as dramatic as its rise in India. Maggi’s entry in the 1980s as an after-school meal and its swift success as a staple easy-to-cook snack within less than a year was often cited as a management case study that dismantled cultural barriers in a country characterised by diverse and finicky food choices.
So, when the latest controversy broke out, consumer reactions were of shock, betrayal and disbelief.
“I felt stabbed after hearing the news. My college days are just going to start and I was abt to lose the best companion,” a consumer posted on Maggi India’s Facebook page.
Inside the sprawling one-million-square-foot corporate office of Nestle India, the local arm of food giant Nestle SA, in Gurgaon off the Delhi-Jaipur highway, top executives are in a huddle.
“Section heads are communicating with their respective teams to deal with the anxiety, reassuring that there is nothing wrong with the product,” a company source, who did not wish to be identified, told HT.
Even employees, the last ones expected to be standing in amidst a crisis, seem to have deserted their trust.
In its ship-shaped Gurgaon corporate office from where the multinational overseas nationwide operations, nothing seems ship-shape.
“We used to sell more than 70 plates of Maggi noodles a day, now it has come down to around 35 to 40,” said the man at Nestle’s campus store, who declined to give his name. The only-for-staff in-house Nestle products’ has reported a drop in sales last week, in an apparent sign that fear may have got to some employees.
Roadside food stalls serving instant Maggi noodles are a common sight in college and university campuses across India – and Maggi is almost used like an Indian word by street vendors. Students swear by it in hostels.
“We don’t order Maggi anymore here,” chorused a group eight women at the campus store. They were out to celebrate the birthday of a colleague.
“I had three oats noodles pack in my house when I heard about the news, and I threw all those away,” said Sarika, a Citibank employee who had wandered into the Nestle store from her nearby office.
Nestle India did not respond to HT’s questions for this story.
With tweets buzzing and Facebook updates listing gags on the company, social media outreach has been the biggest challenge for the company.
An outsourcing partner, which the company had engaged a couple of years ago, is tracking reactions in social media. Separately, an in-house team is collating the messages related to the controversy and sending out direct responses to consumers’ tweets and facebook posts.
“Be a #responsible citizen and take #ownership & #responsibility with dignity for @Maggi fiasco,” said one tweet to @nestleindia, the company’s official handle on the micro-blogging site.
“Nestle is treating this as a local problem. But Indians are everywhere! Really big on social media! It would be a rude shock to consumers elsewhere if they discovered that Maggi was being withdrawn in India but continued in their countries,” marketing consultant Jessie Paul wrote in a blog.
There were others who were unperturbed.
“I can vouch that Maggi has the best quality standards. I have seen it being manufactured,” a senior Nestle executive said in a circulated WhatsApp message.
“We know Maggi is safe. And it is backed by many of the reports that are coming out,” said one Nestle employee as she dunk her spoon into a soupy bowl of hot Maggi in the café in the complex.