Social media and ethics: Why is Mumsnet boycotting Nestlé?

With over a million members few brands can doubt the influence of Mumsnet. And when they decide to ask their members to boycott a product or brand, that’s a dangerous place to be for any company, especially Nestlé given their range of products are mainly bought by women. Especially serious as women are responsible for up to 85% of all consumer purchases and Mumsnet has over a million users with an estimated influence over 10 million through word of mouth alone.

Over the last few decades we’ve seen the power swing from the brands to supermarkets and the consumer.  And with so much choice it’s the consumer who has the real power and they are now using the pound in their pocket to make a point not just a purchase.

There are now more boycotts than ever and it’s becoming a tactic that hurts companies far more than just negative PR because it strikes at the bottom line and can hit the shareholders hard.

The usual list of ethics is finding new additions, only last weekend protesters at corporate tax avoidance (UK Uncut) took over a branch of Barclays (with previous attacks on Top Shop, Boots, HSBC and Vodaphone). And Barclays are all too aware of how powerful boycotts can be, they suffered for decades because of South Africa.

Today you can forget the term ‘brand’ that’s a manufactured thing, instead think ‘reputation’ (a word PR agencies have used for years) because now what really matters is what consumers say about you, not what YOU say about yourself, no matter how big the ad budget. And HOW and WHAT you do says more than ads.

Those brands that have tried to fake their ethics and green credentials (I won’t name the worse offending companies) soon discover that word of mouth is more influential than advertising. But tell the truth and the truth will carry over.

According to leading word of mouth research company Keller Fay, most of us will mention up to 60 brands a week in conversation. But for those companies throwing money into the black hole of the internet, ‘social networking’, this next fact may want to make you rethink your marketing strategy – only 10% of chat is online. Yep, 90% happens in the real word; in bars, pubs, cafes, restaurants, gyms, sports club, at bus stops, on the train, in the car, at home, in the playground, in the office and outside with a fag.

The internet is certainly a great place to develop existing and new relationships with consumers who trust and love you, Starbucks has a massive loyal following, as do many brands both big and small, but don’t kid yourself that means the internet is the answer to distrust, it’s just a better platform to engage. Unfortunately, some salesmen seem to muddle the one with the other comparing unlike for unlike.

We all know that what others say is seen as many more times trusting than any ad, it may be no surprise that in this day and age filled with a deep rooted cynicism, consumers don’t trust advertising, or what companies say about themselves, on or offline. You can understand why the ASA has had to extend it’s powers to the web as it seems to be a place where lying is rife. I know of nobody who would trust a claim in web ad.

A recent report ‘Your Brand: At Risk or Ready for Growth?’ by Michael Hulme of the Institute for Advanced Studies at Lancaster University (commissioned by Alterian), found that 96% of UK respondents indicated that they did not trust advertising. No surprise there. Only 5% trust what companies say about themselves and 62% agreed with the statement “companies are only interested in selling products and services to me, not necessarily the product or service that is right for me”. Just 5% of consumers (UK & US average, UK was 4%) trust ads, “this equates globally to nearly $426 billion spent on ineffectual advertising activity in 2009 alone” to quote Alterian (a company into customer engagement technology and solutions).

Equally as damming, only 7% thought companies listened to them. 82% of the overall sample thought that being involved in the development of a product or service would make them more likely to tell others about the company.

According to Keller Fay the most common reason people talk about brands is promotions, but negative chat is obviously a real stimulant, just look at the case of Pampers at the end of last year (see my blog on it).

It will come  as no surprise that women are 10 times more likely to talk about brands than men, because women like to share, men just like to show off. Which is why Mumsnet one million followers equals 10 million women. One reason Justine Roberts started Mumsnet in 2000 was to share the truth behind the claims made with other mums, after an unpleasant experience. Progressively women consumers are seeking the opinion of like minded women before making purchasing decisions, which could make Justine Roberts one of the most powerful women in the UK.

Another interesting fact is that women have just overtaken men when it comes to using the internet. According to Internet World Stats, Britain’s are now the world’s biggest internet users with a 82.5 % penetration by % of population. Across Europe the average is 67%. Second is South Korea (81.1%) followed by Germany (79.1%) and Japan (78.2%).

Given that women are responsible for up to 85% of consumer purchasing, and a growing influence when it comes to purchasing insurance, cars, family holidays, the house and electronics brands, marketing directors need to rethink their approach to the female consumer, too many market on a uni-sex approach and few seem to really understand the female shoppers mindset.  In short, men are becoming less relevant.

A quick tip, in one survey brands that overtly used pink (called pink wash) to make their product or website appealing to women turn off 97% of women.

Given that women are so key as consumers and that some figures suggest that 85% of ads (FMCG) are targeted at women, why is the average number of women in London advertising agency creative departments just 15% (and that’s probably generous)? Yep, 85% blokes. It was only recently I discovered that our 50:50 male:female creative department at Creative Orchestra was almost unique in adland.  I’m not complaining, it gives us a key advantage over other agencies, so keep it up guys, as will our gals.

 So why do Mumsnet object to brands like Nestlé? Well they say: “Mumsnet supports the Nestle boycott, and works with Baby Milk Action to put pressure on formula manufacturers to act responsibly, particularly in the context of developing countries. Consequently we refuse advertising from all Nestle-controlled companies and those with Nestle branding in the name (eg Nescafe).”

But what about all those nice companies Nestlé have bought into like The Body Shop (Nestlé have a 26% stake via L’Oreal)?  “However, as an advertising-funded business it’s not viable for us to refuse advertising from the hundreds of companies in which Nestle has relatively small (less than 50%) stakes.” Mumsnet has accepted advertising from The Body Shop.

Mumsnet further adds: “The purpose of the Nestlé boycott is to put pressure on the largest baby food company, and the one we find to be the worst, when it comes to violating the international marketing requirements for baby foods. Pressure from the boycott has forced some changes, but the company continues to reject our four-point plan for saving infant lives and ultimately ending the boycott.”

The  power of Mumsnet is growing, their ‘Let Girls Be Girls’ campaign asked retailers not to sell products which ‘play upon, emphasise or exploit children’s sexuality’.  The government has since announced an independent review into the premature sexualisation of children.

Mumsnet are now extending the campaign to tackle the display of lads mags. 9 out of 10 of Mumsnetters who responded to their survey said they didn’t want ‘lads’ mags’ displayed where children could see them.

Of course the danger is that Mumsnet mustn’t let itself be high-jacked by over opinionated groups or those with a religious, extreme moral or political agenda. The moment it becomes seen as extreme rather than common sensible it will lose it’s credibility and influence. Just look at what happened to baby faced virgin, teen music sensation Justin Bieber when he opened his cute mouth and cast his religious based opinions on homosexuality, abortion and premarital sex. Opps, an opinion too far!

More recently it’s launched the ‘Mumsnet Best award’, given to products and services its members most approve of. Winner in Household goods included the Miele Cat and Dog Turbo 5000, the Breville Stainless Steel Slow Cooker and the Panasonic SD256 Breadmaker all of which probably saw a dramatic sales uplift. The categories are a bit limited though but I imagine by next year we’ll see more like insurance companies, banking, cars, electronics, mobiles and food products. Brands in those areas would be well advised to start now planning a strategy of how to win over female consumers (especially mums).

Of course the first thing to do is to tell the truth, how ever hard that is for them to do, because that is the first and most important thing female consumers are seeking.

  • Chris Arnold

    Mumsnet also don’t take ads from McDonalds, plastic sugery and brands that exploit people. They are guided by their members so those brands that have failed to impress should ask themselves the serious question, how can we improve what we are doing?


    Hi Chris, That’s right – as a rule we don’t really “ask” our members to boycott products or brands. They ask us and if there’s a consensus we’re happy to comply in the sense that we won’t work with those brands or allow them to advertise on the site.
    Justine Roberts (Co-founder Mumsnet)

  • Drew Spencer

    Great post Chris. I love the idea that groups like Mumsnet are using their voice to organize people and make us think a bit differently about what we market, and how we market it. I wonder how much of an impact this stuff has though. Obviously the Greenpeace campaign against Nestle was (somewhat) successful. But with Nestle announcing record profits ( it would seem that Mumsnet are having little impact… can anyone comment on the impact of Mumsnet’s boycott?

  • Chris Arnold

    Greenpeace’s campaign against Apple (though only partly a boycott) was influential. It’s not just sales this hits but reputation and retailers don’t like it either.
    An interesting idea from the US is to boycott major petrol brands and use only supermarket petrol stations, forcing a price war and reducing fuel costs. An interesting economic argument.