If you need any persuading that social media are mega-important to mega brands, just check out Nestlé's digital war room.
In the US, Nestlé's known mainly for its crispy Crunch chocolate bars, Nescafe instant coffee, and Nesquik chocolate-flavored milk powder. But worldwide, the 330,000-plus-employee conglomerate manages some 2,000 brands ranging from Nespresso coffee to Purina Dog Chow to Pure Life bottled water to around 20 brands of food for infants. This is a company that each day sells 1.2 billion items.
And this is a company that is tackling social media head-on in a way that may prove to be the model that every large company will find itself following shortly.
Right now, Nestlé is running more than 600 Facebook pages. Many of its brands have their own Twitter feeds, there's a Purina channel on YouTube, and Nestlé runs online communities associated with many brands, as well.
Perhaps most impressive, though, is the company's "digital acceleration team," or DAT, operating since last year out of a room on the sixth floor of corporate headquarters in Vevey, Switzerland. Its offices look like something Fox News, or perhaps the CIA, might have dreamed up: row upon row of flat-panel screens mounted on the walls for easy scanning, lots more screens on desktops, glass walls, a hushed, generally high-tech atmosphere, and gobs of live data visualized for rapid analysis and can't-miss alerts.
You can get a glimpse of this setup on some videos that have been posted to YouTube and read about its doings in some articles here and there, too. The top dog is an American named Pete Blackshaw, head of digital marketing, who talks proudly of what he and his team of 15 people from various global business units have accomplished.
Nestlé sees the Web as the world's largest focus group, Blackshaw is fond of saying. And evidently, Nestlé is eager to master social media, both internally and externally, which is his team's specific mission. To help spread the word on social, the DAT operation produces training videos for Nestlé operating units worldwide, and it oversees an internal social networking system that enables employees to find and work with others sharing similar interests. Blogging is encouraged, and the firm has its own YouTube-like, internal video-sharing system called DigiTube.
But it's on the external front that the company seems to be working the hardest in developing strong social expertise. The DAT operatives continually track consumer sentiments in real-time, quickly (and carefully, one assumes) responding to any negative trends they catch wind of. The DAT room operates as a sort of listening post, monitoring worldwide social media conversations the way intelligence agencies used to monitor the shortwave bands in hopes of getting early warnings about enemy intentions.
And of all companies, Nestlé certainly has its share of enemies -- harsh critics, anyway, who have made a good amount of noise over the years about what they see as unethical business practices by the $200 billion Swiss giant, perhaps most infamously in marketing infant formula to mothers in poorer nations. (Mixed with the polluted water that's typical of those regions, the main complaint has been that formula often makes babies severely ill, if not dead.)
And in 2010, Nestlé's ham-handed response to a Greenpeace video critical of its use of a certain source of palm oil helped the clip go viral in a way it might never have done. And ever since, the social cognoscenti have held up the episode as a perfect lesson in what a company ought not to do in responding to negative online comments.
The DAT team not only monitors Twitter and Facebook for possible outbreaks of trouble but also tries to determine which of its own approaches to social marketing are doing the best in terms of driving reach and engagement. For example, encouraging pet owners to post photos of their cats and dogs seems to help the Purina brand win friends and influence people. In Poland, Nestlé has scored well with consumers by having them share recipes online.
Given its missteps, Nestlé may feel particularly compelled to be more proactive in social media, and to show off its social media nerve center. But it would seem that every large company with a brand or two to protect should be considering something similar. If nothing else, the analytic tools required for such an operation are available as cloud-based services that virtually any company can make good use of.