Big food firms are climate smart but social media stupid

By David Burrows

- Last updated on GMT

"Brands tend to treat Facebook fans as a happy but lobotomised mass," says Yeomans.
"Brands tend to treat Facebook fans as a happy but lobotomised mass," says Yeomans.
Brands are blowing a major opportunity to communicate their sustainability initiatives to millions of consumers with social media updates that are “inane, safe and saccharinely artificial in their bonhomie”, says a report.

Media business Sustainly shined the spotlight on 15 major FMCG brands, including nine from the food and drink sector. PepsiCo, General Mills, Nestlé​, Mondelez, Mars, Coca-Cola, Unilever, ABF and Danone have all had their approach to social media, specifically Facebook, assessed and the conclusions are not for the faint-hearted.

Happy but lobotomised

“Brands tend to treat Facebook fans as a happy but lobotomised mass that can be enthused with pretty photos and upbeat platitudes,”​ explained the company’s founder Matthew Yeomans in the report ‘Big Brand Report 2015 – how 175 brands communicate sustainability using Facebook’.

He also discovered that, when criticised, they don’t counter with hard facts and solid answers – a move that would reassure both the activists and the millions of  Facebook fans that watch the discourse play out. Rather, they do nothing, offer generic ‘contact our customer services’ messages or push marketing messages.

“Nearly a decade after the first brands got involved on Facebook many, it seems, are still learning that social media is a two-way conversation, not a platform for pushing marketing messages,”​ Yeoman explained.

This apathy is concerning given the scale of followers some brands now have on Facebook alone.

Sustainly assessed the activity of 175 brands across the 15 companies which combined boast a following of 757.84m ‘likes’ or ‘fans’. In 2015, 66 of those 175 brands (38%) have used Facebook to talk to 376m fans about sustainability issues, though often in only the most cursory fashion, it says.

This is a big mistake, Yeomans noted, considering that “it’s clear from spending any time on Facebook that people are asking serious sustainability questions about nearly every major brand”.

“How brands react to this increasingly well-informed and opinionated consumer will likely have a big impact on their future reputation, credibility and sales,”​ he added.

Comfort zones

There are topics brands feel more comfortable posting about than others. Health and wellness is the most popular topic. Close behind, perhaps surprisingly, is sustainable sourcing, which is more popular than charitable causes as well as waste and recycling.

Sourcing sustainable commodities might not be the cuddly topic that many brands want to embrace on social media under the gaze of tens of millions of consumers, but the likes of Mars and Unilever are openly talking about their procurement of tea, coffee and cocoa, Yeomans found.

Nestlé​ (24m fans) is also commended for its communications around sustainable cocoa. Earlier this week it announced​ that, come the turn of the year, its chocolate confectionery and biscuit range will use sustainable cocoa from the Nestlé​ Cocoa Plan.

Others have retreated into their shells, however. Take Coca-Cola, which has 93m Facebook fans and a year ago was communicating issues like recycling and exercise. Yeoman notes: “This year it has retreated into generic platitude around ‘happiness’”​, thus “missing an opportunity to tell [those 93 million people] about sustainability initiatives it discusses on its website.”

This seems like a massive oversight for a brand that is, on a corporate level, receiving high praise for its efforts. Earlier this week Coca-Cola Enterprises announced that it had set a science-based target to reduce emissions from its core business by 50% and from drink production by 33% by 2020. The move was welcomed by the likes of WWF, the Carbon Disclosure Project and the UN Global Compact.

More political issues like climate change and clean energy are tougher topics for brands at present, but they could present a real opportunity. The Climate Movement campaign run for ice cream company Ben & Jerry’s is an example of “smart sustainability storytelling”. ​Melting ice-cream was used as a simple, yet dramatic, metaphor for climate change, with the message being: look what two degrees extra heat does to ice-cream so it will make even more of mess of the planet (a two degree rise in temperatures being the level at which climate change becomes dangerous).

This is an exception rather than the rule, it seems. “Even as companies increasingly invest in more sustainable supply chains, improve energy efficiency, do better by their workers and make products and that are more sustainable and better performing than in the past they communicate these achievements only through their exceedingly dull corporate communication channels,”​ Yeoman concluded.

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2 comments

Large Companies using Social Media

Posted by Linda Batt-Rawden,

My specialist communications food and drink company worked for Nestle for 20 years and I can only say that nothing has changed. The multinationals take the safe "stick your head in the sand" option and don't allow any real facts and figures and challenges be made to those individuals or consumers challenging their actions. They prefer to take the flack and not stir the pond afraid they will disturb even more interest.

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Didn't evolve as fast as technolgy

Posted by Christophe Pelletier,

It's mostly because they are stuck in PR approach from the Jurrassic era. They have not evolve in how they communicate and don't see the potential of social media. Today, people don't want to be told what to think. They want to make up their own minds. Telling is the past and dialoguing and answering are the present (and possibly the future)

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