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The Maggi Controversy as Political Theatre: What it Means for Companies and Brands

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The recent ban on Maggi Noodles and the subsequent actions of the Regulator on the one hand and Nestle on the other can be understood via s anaemio-narrativelysis in order to identify the implications for companies – in managing media led controversies in the public domain.

Let us start by examining the key actors in this drama. There are four key actors we can identify – the company, the regulatory authority, the individual consumer and consumers as a collective. Apart from these four actors, there are two more – the media and the celebrities who have endorsed the brand at some prior period.

What is this drama all about? It is all about consumer protection – ensuring that the food that people eat is safe. And here the meaning of safe is that it is not dangerous or poisonous. Going by all the posts on social media, most consumers know that Maggi Noodles is by no means “healthy and nutritious” food, like fruits, milk or dal. But they have never imagined it to be dangerous or poisonous to their health. They can easily verify this premise from their own experience. What is more, consumers have a lot of personal memories and nostalgia and emotional affinity to Maggi.

It is inextricably linked in many consumers’ minds with their college days and youthful fun.

An over-zealous regulator opens the drama by firing a warning shot – he claims that the consumer’s health is at risk of being poisoned by Maggi – due to the presence of the poisonous element lead as well other chemicals beyond the prescribed limit. Upon making this discovery, he prescribes the remedy beloved of all regulators in India when ‘public safety’ is perceived to be at risk – impose a ban on the offending product or service. By making these two moves, the regulator establishes his credentials as the protector of consumers, his seriousness of intent in fulfilling that role and his power to inflict damage on the “multi-national company”, the giant corporation that is poisoning Indian consumers and profiting from its misdeeds. The regulator is the Savior and Messiah of the people. The company is the greedy villain, poisoning the people.

The problem with this plotline in the drama is that regulatory bodies in India are not the natural saviors of consumers. Most government bodies are assumed by consumers to be inept or corrupt or both. When a regulator makes a public charge against a company based upon some tests etc, the immediate thought that jumps to consumers’ minds is the hindi phrase, “chakkar kya hai”… what’s the hidden conspiracy here? Do they want to extort money from the company? Or are they doing some minister’s bidding? Or have they been paid off by a competitor to create trouble? They rarely think, yes, I trust this regulator’s probity and competence. Hence, if they are making a public charge against the company about its products being unsafe for consumption, it must be a valid charge. And they are doing it to protect me from danger.

The other problem with this plotline in the drama is that consumers today are better informed and empowered than they were 30 years ago. So the narrative premise of the “victim” consumer being exploited by the “villainous” company also does not quite ring true. Never-the-less, this opening move in the drama does stir up confusion and chaos in a previously well-ordered world. And many consumers who have never doubted the brand before would be actively seeking reassurance.

In this scenario of confusion, who should be the natural ally of the shaky individual consumer, the one who can reassure him/her of product safety and thus protect him/her? Consumers don’t trust Celebrities to play this role since they believe that Celebrities endorse products and brands for the money. They also don’t think that Celebrities would play a true watch-dog role by interrogating the company hard and obtaining validation before they agree to endorse.

Media steps in naturally into the ‘watch-dog’, consumer protector role by conducting investigations, reporting facts and relevant information, bringing in some objectivity into the drama. Media also takes on the consumer protector role by attacking the ‘powerful’ and calling them to account. However, while consumers watch the “attacker” shows and read media reports, they may not trust them entirely either and would prefer to consult with one another and make up their own mind.

The natural ally of individual consumers in such a scenario of confusion is actually other consumers, people like them, with whom they can compare notes and decide what to do, in order to protect themselves in the matter of food safety. If their friends and family decide Maggi is safe to eat and that they had better stock up to ride out the ban, then that is what they will do. If the consumer consensus is that Maggi is unsafe and better not to eat it (at least for some time, till the controversy is resolved or dies down), then that is what they will do.

So, what is the role for the attacked Company, the ostensible villain in this political theatre? The wrong moves for them are to try and clear their ‘name’ and ‘regain’ their reputation, prove their innocence or to try and decry the regulator who consumers don’t believe in much anyway. The right move is to pro-actively protect the consumer and provide them with the extra re-assurance that they seek. Cadbury and Nokia did just this when their ‘worm’ and ‘battery’ controversy broke out.

Companies in India need to be conscious that they are the natural custodians and protectors of consumer safety and sometimes, delivering to that role and responsibility might require them to go beyond compliance with legal requirements. If such a protector stance is pro-actively taken, the drama will end quickly with one victor, the consumer and through that, the company and its brand.
As it turns out, this regulatory attack has enabled the FSSAI to petition the Central Government for the approval of a huge hike in its budget in order to staff it adequately and resource it with the latest equipment – which was the real motive, probably, for initiating this political drama around food. Companies need to be prepared that attacks can come from anywhere for reasons of political theatre. In the social and other media dominated era that we live in now, political theatre around their products will need to be managed as much as production, sales and marketing.

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