Last week I left my family and flew to California to attend the Nestle USA Happy, Healthy Gathering, which was an event for bloggers. Some of you may have heard about the event before it was held, some not until after and, for most of you here, not at all. I did mention it briefly in my review of Trust Agents, but otherwise didn’t say much about it.
Why I went
When I received the invitation at the beginning of September I was intrigued because there has been a lot of talk about brands warming to interacting with dads. Jessica Smith of JessicaKnows.com wrote a great post about dad bloggers gaining momentum as influencers and Chris Brogan recently put together the DigiDads project with his client Sony.
Since dads are the redheaded step children of the parent blogging world, I was interested in going just to immerse myself in the conversation and take the power of social media in from the perspective moms have been seeing for years. Once the matters with my wife’s work schedule were resolved, I didn’t think twice about accepting the offer from Nestle USA to take the trip out to California.
As a stay at home dad and the family chef, I was looking forward to learning more about Nestle and their commitment to healthy living, attend my first ever blogger event and meet people in real life and hopefully come away with some tips to help me feed my increasingly picky toddler.
As a consumer I’ve been purchasing Nestle products for years. Their reach in terms of product depth and breadth in the consumer market is pervasive. However, this is not to say that I am brand loyal, as I am more likely than not price loyal.
Cats and dogs living together, mass hysteria!
There were some issues with Nestle and its global business practices that were brought up by some folks that wrote intelligent, well thought out blog posts. Unfortunately, those people managed to get drowned out by attention seekers that sought to inject themselves into the conversation.
I don’t know enough about all the issues and this post is by no means meant to support or debunk any sides of the various arguments. Some of these issues have been voiced for nearly 35 years, but they are out there and have been made much more public during the event thanks to social media and those that are passionate about them.
For that reason I’m not going to enumerate the specific issues, but I do want to address a few things, especially the attacks on my new blogger friends and Nestle’s social media readiness.
Do your research
As the controversy unfolded many suggested that we should have done our research before accepting the invitation to this event. The reality, for me anyway, is that my research has been done for years in the grocery store.
Being a single income family my activism is local and if something is on sale, or I have a coupon for it, then that is what I buy. In the same vein, despite having been to the Nestle Family event, I am no more likely to target Nestle brands as I am to not target Nestle brands in my purchasing decisions.
Being a dad who is relatively new to the blogosphere and not connected to many moms I was a little disturbed at how readily the purported “community” went on the offensive against these women and Greg, the other dad in attendance. Personal ethics were challenged without trepidation, even by people that have met the attendees at other events that have been held.
The argument was made that Nestle bought us with a plane ride, a few nice dinners and a fancy hotel room. I disagree with that assertion. Accepting a trip from a company does not make one a corporate shill. Agreeing to do whatever a company asks in exchange for a trip is what makes you a corporate shill.
Not one us agreed to do anything for Nestle in exchange for the trip other than listening to what they had to say and relaying the messages if we so chose to do so. At the start of the event Nestle made it clear that we were to do whatever we wanted in terms of blogging and tweeting.
Personally, I made the decision to not ‘live tweet’ the event as is customary at many blogger events. There were plenty of attendees to cover what was happening and I didn’t see myself providing any value by clogging up the stream.
No fruity drinks with umbrellas here
Some even characterized this trip as a vacation, but due to the size and reach of Nestle and its brands the event was informative, but fast paced. For me making the trip was difficult and probably cost my family money, so this was assuredly not a vacation.
My wife had to rearrange her work schedule, including using personal time to get off one of the four days that I was away. Considering that I only have one child I can’t imagine what this might have been like for all the parents there that have multiple children or the working moms that had to rearrange their lives to be attend.
I did my best to avoid following what happened in the hashtag stream, but I did see that a few said they were approached, but chose to not attend. My view on this would be to say why? If you were given an open forum where you could have had access to some of the most senior executives of the US division of a multinational enterprise and you have specific concerns you wish to voice about their business practices, why wouldn’t you have taken advantage of that?
I have a great deal of respect for the women that attended and openly solicited questions from the twitterverse to help create the dialogue that is still going on. The first question asked during the Q&A session with the Chairman and CEO of Nestle USA was about the boycott over the infant formula marketing practices.
Not one of us shied away from asking the questions that those who took the time to relay to us (and by us, I mean the great moms that put themselves out there and Greg). Because I didn’t know even one of the bloggers in attendance prior to the event I was relatively insulated from the storm other than a few interesting tweets lobbied at my stream.
Starting the conversation
Valid arguments were made about Nestle and the fact that they appeared to have glossed over social media’s importance. However, the thing I found humorous was that by the time this event took place they were in a damned if they did, damned if they didn’t position.
The lack of a social media action plan in advance of the Nestle Family event elicited criticism and when the SVP of communications finally took to Twitter to engage he, and the others who manned their handle, were flamed for their responses. Additionally, and I realize this is splitting hairs, but the event was for Nestle USA and many of the issues (not all) were more global in nature and maybe have been beyond the scope of their resources during the actual event.
It is unrealistic to expect a company of this size and scope to be that nimble. To avoid being painted as an apologist, it doesn’t excuse the fact that they didn’t have a better grasp of social media before staging such an event. Still, the fact that they had this event was an important first step to developing this understanding by opening the conversation.
Questions on social media preparedness
During the second session of the first day I asked a bunch of questions about their social media strategy, specifically if they had a person dedicated to managing it, much like Ford has in Scott Monty. At the present time they do not, but have realized the importance of having a dedicated social media professional as part of their team.
By no means do I consider myself to be a social media expert, and wouldn’t think to insult the real social media jedi masters that are out there, but in nearly a year that I’ve been doing this I have learned a few things. And so I made the recommendation to them to move beyond just talking about their brands.
Let’s be honest, what kind of valuable interaction can they really have with that? “So, who here likes butterfinger?”. “Mmm. Butterfinger good.” To me there isn’t much value in that, but I could be wrong, like I said social media guru is not on my business card.
At one point during the discussion they talked about the different ways in which they support breastfeeding efforts. I took that opportunity to suggest that maybe they create a Facebook fan page (or similar tool or outpost) to relay this information and humanize their brand.
Nestle will, and rightfully so, be judged by how they react and execute on a social media strategy in light of the controversy sparked by this event. After seeing the truly human emotional response they had towards it all and how upset they were that it happened to the attendees, my hope is that they worked hard and fast to get it right. I met a lot of good people who are passionate about what they do at Nestle and I hope for nothing but the best for them.
I will close this diatribe by saying that since I was an attendee I realize that no matter what I’ve said some will have the opinion that my words are bought and paid for. As disappointing as that is for me, since it runs contrary to the entire concept behind social media and community development, I know it is a reality.
To those that are in the camp against Nestle, I applaud you for your commitment to the things you believe in. I respect your right to your own position, just as I hope you respect my right to the same.
Disclosure: I attended the Nestle Family Happy Healthy Gathering in California. All of my expenses related to airfare, surface transportation, accommodations, meals and other event related costs were paid or are due to reimbursed by Nestle USA. This blog post represents my personal opinion of what transpired and was not solicited, written or requested to be written, by Nestle, its representatives or agents.