The Maggi crisis is back, and one wonders how the Nestle India, Chairman & MD, Suresh Narayanan, will tackle the crisis this time. Narayanan, an old timer at Nestle, was brought in a hurry to fire-fight the situation when the Maggi crisis broke out in May of 2015. He had successfully managed to restore Maggi's erstwhile glory, not just in terms of market share, but also managed to regain consumers' trust which the brand had enjoyed for 25 long years.
In an interview with Ajita Shashidhar and Rajeev Dubey, in November last year, Narayanan had spoken about how the Maggi Noodles crisis was the most challenging and dramatic situation in his entire professional career.
How did you react when you first got to know that you had to bring Nestle India out of a huge crisis?
I am a guy who either gets into a crisis or when I go to handle a new business, a crisis happens. I was in Egypt during the Arab crisis. When I took over in Philippines (Narayanan was the country head of Philippines before he took over the India operations), the country had faced 18 typhoons and the market was shattered.
Maggi is the worst crisis that we have faced in the 104 years of our existence in this country, also the worst crisis the company has faced globally in a long time.
When my boss called me, I was at a get-together in Philippines, which was followed by a call from our global CEO, who said, 'I want you back in India.'
When you are called upon to step into a crisis, the first question you typically ask is why me? I did the same, but I immediately asked myself, 'why not me'. I told myself that this was my opportunity and duty to step into a team who I owe a lot.
I took over in July 24(2015) and a leading daily carried a headline which said 'An Indian Comes To Save Nestle'. That was indeed dramatic. My daughter told me I should have ridden a horse and gone to office that morning!
Did you believe that Nestle India had gone terribly wrong in India?
I knew companies are born with DNAs. The DNA of Nestle is that food quality and safety elements are never compromised anywhere in the world. I have seen operations across the globe and these are non-negotiables. I knew that there can be nothing wrong.
How was the mood of the team?
The team was shattered. Our factory workers were extremely upset. We pride ourselves in saying that when you visit our factories you can literally squat and eat on the floor. That's a global standard, nobody is allowed to compromise on it. We don't have to put our flag on the mountain simply because it is there.
I had an empty feeling. At that time I realized as a leader, the weight of responsibility on my shoulders is so big during a crisis. My body language, intonation, choice of words, are all palpable on my face. If I am perceived to getting it wrong, I will blow up the organizational credibility that comes.
What did you tell them?
My first priority was to talk to the people as it is the people who are going to make things happen in the organization, not just my perspective. The only thing I told them is that we would build this organization person by person, brick by brick, consumer by consumer.
It was probably the most stressful time we had as a team. The culture of Nestle is dignified and respectful and there is enormous amount of pride and dedication that people put in. There was never a moment when I ever got the feeling from any of my people that their attention was less than 100% in ensuring that their company gets back. We tend to discount those values in the modern age. Its not fashionable to say that dedication, loyalty are important values.
I never chose to be arrogant or angry or chose to confront and point fingers, as honestly, all this doesn't get you anywhere. It only gets you more acrimony.
Our people put in super human efforts. You think that ordinary people cant do extra-ordinary things. Extraordinary things are possible. People have slogged as there was a sense of purpose. We said on Dhanteras we relaunch Maggi. Our only gift to consumers would be bringing Maggi back.
People compare this crisis with what happened to Coke and Pepsi and what happened to Cadbury, there is a fundamental difference. With Cadbury it was packaging, which they quickly corrected, with Coke and Pepsi it was Centre For Science and Environment. This was Union of India versus Nestle. It is a different ball game when you have the Government, the food regulator who are at your back.
Nestle India has always been a media shy company, but you were quite active, especially on social media, through the crisis. What was the thought process?
During the absence of the brand, on social media, the support for the brand was enormous. Everyday there were thousands of messages coming in 'We Miss you Maggi'.
The classic marketing principle would be not to communicate, as the brand was not on the shelves. We instead decided to acknowledge this affection and support. We did a 'Miss You too' campaign.
When the testing was over, we didn't make a big noise, but simply told the consumer, 'Maggi Is Safe, It's Always Been'. Every single result was posted on the web site. People must know and we had nothing to hide.
Did you expect Maggi to make such a quick turnaround?
I never thought we would have a recovery as fast as we had. There was so much badgering of the brand that had happened, but the fact that people felt that the company had been wronged was pretty high. That is what had made the recovery that much more memorable. For a brand that was critically declared dead in June 2015, coming to under 60% of the market share is a big deal.