Yes, We Have No Bananas.

Written by Chris Ivey on December 18th, 2011. Posted in Lessons Learned

Chiquita becomes a cautionary example when it gets just about everything about social media communications wrong.

I used to work for an ad agency, and I often had animated discussions with my colleagues about the danger of confusing cause marketing with product marketing. I have always maintained that they are separate disciplines that don’t mix, while many of my colleagues disagreed.

As a society, we have become distressingly pious and self-righteous – and as a natural consequence advertisers wish to capitalize on this instinct. Like my erstwhile colleagues, they see this as an easy path to identifying their product with a strong public sentiment. This is such a bad idea that it merits a blog entry of its own, but what lead me to write today was a satisfyingly spectacular self-immolation by a large American brand that managed to make the wrong choice in just about every decision their communications and marketing teams have made over the past few days.

Chiquita Brands, (CQB) had been the subject of a small public protest by an American environmental lobby group called Forest Ethics. Forest Ethics was instrumental in the White House decision to delay implementation of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. Part of their strategy included protests against completely unrelated business – generally conducted as publicity stunts by small groups of paid protesters. Forest Ethics must have been as surprised as everyone else when Chiquita Brands made a public announcement that they would be boycotting Canadian “Tar Sands” oil.

In a way, this was an utterly pointless gesture on the part of Chiquita Brands. Oil is a completely fungible commodity. US refineries handle different grades of heavy oil from all over the planet, and once the product has been refined and shipped it’s pretty much impossible to where any particular gallon of fuel might have originated. I can only guess that the communications team at Chiquita may have thought that by tapping into the strong public sentiment about the environment might help to rehabilitate their less than squeaky-clean corporate reputation. Whatever their thinking was, this proved to be a bad decision.

I have always maintained that cause marketing and product marketing don’t mix. Whatever people may say, once they’re in the grocery aisle, unless they have a very urgent and personal reason to avoid a particular brand, they couldn’t care less about the individual ethical reputations of the thousands of brands they’re confronted with. When buying food, consumers tend to want to know four things: Does this taste good? Is it nutritious? Is this a quality product? Is this good value for money?

Advertisers have written volumes about the different strategies they employ to differentiate commodity brands and packaged goods on these four heads when they know that consumers will only devote a few seconds to each of the purchasing decisions they will make. Only a fool would believe that a political act by a distant corporation is going to cut much ice when it comes to choosing one fruit over another. Their is little hope of being rewarded with increased sales, while there is considerable risk that the act could backfire.

This is precisely what happened to Chiquita Brands. They responded to lobbying by a small group of environmentalists without thinking of the larger consequences of their act. The fact is that the viewpoint held by Forest Ethics is not universally shared by Americans. The White House decision to delay the Keystone project, (which has effectively killed it), has been widely denounced as a poor political decision that gains little for the environment while having the very real effect of eliminating thousands of jobs.

Regardless of where you might personally stand on the issue, five minutes’ research on Google would show that this is a controversial issue that any wise PR manager would tell you to steer clear of. There’s no conceivable benefit for a produce company to stake political capital in an issue which is bound to alienate a large part of the market no matter which side they choose.

Worse, Chiquita Brands seemed to forget completely about their Canadian market. It’s easy to underestimate Canada. It’s a little country with a tenth the population of the United States. On the other hand, it’s a terrific export market, and much too accessible and rich to be ignored.

Canadians are understandably touchy about the Oil Sands. The majority of Canadians are very proud of the fact that they’ve transformed the country into an energy superpower by successfully accessing a resource that was considered nearly worthless only a decade ago – and they have done this with unprecedented care, investing billions of dollars in developing new technologies to protect the environment. Canadians are also very proud of the fact that they are the only net exporter of oil that is a liberal democracy and respects human rights. They’ve even coined the phrase “ethical oil” to describe their unique approach to oil production.

What Chiquita Brands succeeded in doing with their announcement was to make millions of Canadian consumers very unhappy. People who couldn’t have told you on Monday morning what brand of bananas they bought were determined by Thursday afternoon that it wouldn’t be Chiquita. Worse yet, hundreds of consumers decided to make their feelings known by commenting on the Chiquita Bananas Facebook page. And this is where Chiquita’s marketing and communications team took one bad decision and turned it into a disaster:

Chiquita Brands maintains Facebook pages for each of their major brands, including one for Chiquita Bananas. The Chiquita Bananas Facebook page is a simple, well designed community portal that features a recipe contest, baking tips, and instructions on how to make a perfect banana smoothie. Over the years they’ve built a loyal community of followers. Up until a couple of days ago their wall posts attracted an average of a dozen likes and a half-dozen comments. It was an unexceptionable, modestly successful corporate Facebook page.

That changed on Friday morning when angry Facebook users started posting indignant comments on their wall. Apparently, no one was watching the activity on the page, because nothing much happened until late afternoon, when Chiquita social media staff decided to delete the offending comments. Apparently, no one saw fit to respond to the comments and questions that people were posting, and from the looks of things, no one bothered to inform the communications and PR teams.

This was a bad idea. Facebook users who had merely felt an mild, impersonal sense of indignation at Chiquita dissing Canada were now personally offended at having their comments unceremoniously snuffed by an unseen hand. I first became aware of what was happening because of a wave of reports that rippled through the blogosphere, appealing to Facebook users to flood the Chiquita page with comments.

For a while I enjoyed the spectacle of the ebb and flow as Chiquita’s moderators tried to keep up with the flow of angry comments. I took a few screenshots for posterity. What was instructive was the way the tone of the comments changed. Users who felt slighted started to dig up old stories about some of Chiquita’s less than ethical behaviour in central America, and started posting links, including links to archived copies of a now infamous Cincinnati Enquirer story that Chiquita had successfully repressed over a decade ago. Now the moderators had a real problem. They were getting a first hand lesson about the fact that while consumers may not have a long memory, the Internet does.

By midnight, the moderators had caught up and removed all of the offending comments. However, people continue to post angry comments. Chiquita’s original Facebook community, built up with years of investment, has simply been hijacked, and it will take some time to recover – if it recovers at all. Worse yet, the Canadian press got wind of the dispute and Chiquita’s handling of it, and they weren’t gentle.

Chiquita Brands is a multi-billion dollar company. They can simply shrug off a PR meltdown that would destroy a small business. They probably aren’t going to care too much about a little bad press or losing part of their Facebook fan base. However, their almost unbelievably inept handling of what should have been a minor event can serve as a learning experience for the rest of us. There are a few lessons that we can take away from what happened over the past couple of days:

 

1. Don’t confuse cause marketing with product marketing.

Product marketing and cause marketing are two different disciplines. If you’re in the business of selling bolts, buttons, or bananas, then by definition you’re not in the business of saving the planet or improving the morals of your customers. I realize that many of my readers will point to the success of Starbucks Inc. and their imitators of using community activism to build their brand – but they’re a lifestyle brand, not a commodity company. I’d also point out that MacDonald’s restaurants have sold a lot of premium coffee by simply telling their consumers that it tastes good, it’s hot, and it’s cheap.

Facebook activism is the cheapest and most ineffective activism of all, because it costs nothing; accomplishes nothing, and can only serve to disaffect people. If you’ve been hired to sell a product, then your job is to sell stuff and make money for the shareholders. If you want to make the world a better place, join the Mormons.

2. monitor the activity on your social media channels.

Your social media channels are not broadcast channels. You might use them for marketing, but they’re a communications tool, and if you’re not watching them, you’re not communicating with your customers. Not only that, but if you fail to respond to events in a timely manner, you risk having a small event take on outsize significance.

3. If you see a communications problem developing, engage your communications team right away.

When disaffected customers first started posting on the Chiquita Facebook page, they genuinely wanted to engage with the company. By definition, this is what your communications team is for. Every member of your social media marketing team should be trained to recognized a PR problem that requires an intervention by communications, and they should have immediate access to the appropriate people.

4. Never suppress or delete sincere feedback from your customers.

Unless someone is posting spam or a genuinely hateful or legally exceptionable comment, it’s a bad idea to delete user comments on social media channels. You can respond to comments or ignore them, but deleting them does two things: it makes the commenters angry and more determined than ever to have their say, and it makes you look like you have something to hide. In a healthy social community, not every comment will be a positive comment. Consumers will generally respect companies with a good reputation even if they get bad commentary. No one will respect companies that suppress commentary and try to hide what consumers say about them.

Deleting hundreds of user comments just about guarantees that the discussion will break out elsewhere in an environment you don’t control.

5. When your customers demand a response, say something.

When your consumers are angry and demanding a response, the worst thing you can do is to stay mute and ignore them. Say something, even if all you can say is that you need to figure out what to say. Saying nothing says you don’t care.

Chiquita could well have avoided the controversy that erupted from their decision by simply having someone on their communications team post a response on their Facebook page to the main issues raised by the commenters. A few individual responses might have converted angry customers to brand evangelists. Instead, their silent arrogance and ham-fisted attempt to make the problem disappear magnified a minor controversy, immolated a viable and hard-earned social media community and brought Chiquita under the unfriendly glare of the press.

Perhaps the most sobering thing about this whole incident was that it didn’t have to happen. It was entirely self-inflicted.

Chris Ivey

Christopher Ivey is the CEO of ShareThink Ltd., a technology innovation company located in Almonte, ON, just outside Ottawa.

Comments (6)

  • Maureen
    December 19, 2011 at 9:57 am |

    I informed the three grocery stores that I shop at that I trust they are not selling Chiquita products because I will not be buying them. This is the FIRST time in my 56 years that I have written to stores to inform them of my decisions (and I am NOT alone).

  • Allan Bell
    December 19, 2011 at 1:31 pm |

    Three things:

    First. Spellcheck.
    Second. re: consumers don’t care: And why do we have “dolphin safe” tuna?
    Third: “Majority of Canadians are very proud of the fact?” I don’t think so. Better source that or take it out.

    • December 19, 2011 at 2:03 pm |

      Thanks for the comment. Sorry if there are typos – the spell-check plugin in my browser is less than perfect, and I tend to write in a tearing hurry.

      I do think the Majority of Canadians are proud of the success of their oil industry, (though most available polls are regional) and while there may be varying degrees of opposition to the oil sands projects, most Canadians tend to bristle at superiority and moralizing from a bunch of Americans… just Google a few polls about the Keystone XL pipeline, and get an eyefull of the attached editorial.

      As for dolphin safe tuna, that’s a direct response to a PR problem with that particular product – I don’t really think that it’s related to cause marketing.

  • Craig
    December 19, 2011 at 1:43 pm |

    Hey Allan,
    Fourth: “I don’t think so.” Got any facts to back that up?

  • Allan Bell
    December 19, 2011 at 1:50 pm |

    Hey Craig, That’s why i said “I don’t THINK so”, and I asked for the source. Do you have any? How about this?
    http://www2.macleans.ca/2011/12/19/the-museum-is-the-message/

  • Keith
    December 19, 2011 at 8:17 pm |

    Re:Craig
    i take it you are from a “have not” province and don’t realize who subsidizes your life

    If you have your hand out like most in Canada, don’t be criticizing where it is coming from

Leave a comment