Friday, March 27, 2009

Nestle: engaging with its critics

This is my 500th blog post! Many have been critical of Nestle's practices, always with good reason, and providing evidence to support the claims made.

Nestle claims that it wishes to 'engage with its critics', but the way it chose to 'engage' with us over an internet domain name is very revealing.

This 'engagement' argument was used to good effect with a committee of the Methodist Church. Citing the 'scandal' of Nestle baby milk marketing and praising Baby Milk Action for exposing it, the committee suggested 'engagement' with Nestle could be a parallel strategy to the boycott and decided becoming a shareholder would give it more influence. The fact the investment is intended to prompt change hasn't stopped Nestle from using it to undermine efforts by health advocates to protect infant health. Instead of addressing our evidence when people contact it, or agreeing to participate in a proposed independent, expert tribunal to examine it, Nestle dishonestly uses the investment to imply that we are lone critics. See:

Of course, it is not necessary to invest to 'engage' with Nestle: we are in communication with Chief Executive, Mr. Paul Bulcke. In response to our last letter on company marketing practices, he signalled he has no intention of making any changes in addition to those we won from his predecessor, Mr. Peter Brabeck-Letmathe. The pressure that caused Mr. Brabeck to act, needs to be continued.

So what does Nestle mean when it says it wants to 'engage with critics' and what is it trying to achieve?

Some insight into this is provided by something that has been a rather annoying distraction this month. The background to this is the Nestle Critics website that was launched last year for International Nestle-Free Week. Just before the launch, Nestle's lawyers wrote to us demanding that we hand over the domain name for the site, giving a deadline of 29 September 2008, the same week the site was to be launched.

We saw this as an attempt to undermine the launch and feared that Nestle might put misleading information on the domain name - which had been publicised on this blog for a couple of months - to pass it off as our campaign site to gain information from visitors; the Swiss media was reporting at the time that Nestle had hired a spy to pass off as a campaigner to gather sensitive and confidential information from Swiss campaign group Attac Switzerland. See:

Nestle's lawyers claimed the domain name - - used for the site, originally conceived as 'Nestle's actions speak louder than its words', meant the site was passing off as a Nestle site. This was despite the fact that the site text made it clear that it was providing analysis of Nestle, directed people to Nestle's site for its words and had boycott logos on it. The metadata for the site, that appeared in search engine listings, also made it clear that it was a critics site.

While Nestle suddenly decided it wanted the domain just before our site was to launch, the domain name remained in third party hands and had been registered a year before the .org domain we were using. Indeed, it is still in third party hands and has links to Nestle's competitors on it.

So we thought Nestle's case was without merit. However, we had never intended to gain traffic by mistake and decided to move the site to the domain where it is now found:

We didn't want to hand the domain name over to Nestle during the critical launch period, but as a voluntary measure we placed a 'disambiguation' page on the domain name with links to the Nestle site and the Nestle critics site, saying:

If you are looking for Nestlé's official website, try

If you are looking for the campaign website "Nestle's actions speak louder than its words", for information on concerns about Nestlé practices, visit

Please update your bookmarks.

That did upset any plans Nestle might have had for using a bogus site as another branch of its spying operation (run, incidently, by a former MI6 officer), but otherwise was a very reasonable voluntary action to take.

Some may think it was too reasonable and might have preferred using the domain name and inviting Nestle to take us to court. Now, I don't particularly mind the idea of meeting Nestle in court, but a legal battle over a domain name that we didn't have any strong attachment to was not a good use of our resources. I also preferred the new domain name for its clarity of purpose and wished I'd thought of that first.

So we responded to Nestle's lawyers rejecting its complaints and explaining the voluntary action we had taken to address its unfounded concerns, finishing:

"I trust this is satisfactory and that our voluntary action proves the point that there was never any intention of gaining traffic to the site by error. I might add that Nestlé could have saved itself the expense of contracting your services if it had contacted us directly with its concerns."

That is worth thinking about: why did Nestle hit us with a lawyers' letter, rather than simply writing to us directly, as we do when we find Nestle breaking the baby food marketing requirements?

Surely it was to intimidate us and distract us from the site launch and Nestle-Free Week.

It certainly wasn't the act of a company wishing to engage with its critics. It also backfired as the hi-jack attempt generated publicity for the site and the Swiss spying case.

We heard nothing back from Nestle. Our registration of the domain name was due to expire in September this year and we thought a year was a long enough time for people to update their bookmarks and weren't planning to renew. That seemed the end of the matter.

Then at the beginning of this month we received an email from the World Intellectual Property Organisation about a complaint over our registration of the domain name, followed a few days later by a 500-page document, sent by courier, for the case which Nestle had filed against us.

Now, if Nestle wasn't happy with our disambiguation page, and was a company keen to 'engage', wouldn't its first step have been to reply to our letter of nearly 6 months before? You would think so. Again we saw it as an attempt to intimidate and cost us time and money.

Well, we weren't intimidated. It was more bemusing. Nestle's 500-page document on a domain name is such a contrast with its refusal to submit evidence on the baby milk issue to the proposed independent expert tribunal and the dismissive letters it sends to us when we raise cases of malpractice.

When I received the email notification, I checked the traffic to the Nestle Critics site and found there had been none from the disambiguation page: it had apparently done its job and anyone with the old link had updated their bookmarks. So I contacted the domain name registrar to cancel our registration, hoping to put an end to the battle before it even began. Nestle, hater of tribunals, had asked for a the three-person panel to hear the domain name case, when the norm is for a single investigator.

Ironically before the registrar responded to my email about cancelling the domain, I received a standard email telling me it was subject to a complaint and so the registration was frozen. If Nestle was really motivated by getting hold of the domain, bringing the case had delayed it becoming available.

I wrote to Mr. Bulcke pointing all this out to him.

A reply came from Nestle (UK) Public Affairs, acknowledging that we no longer had a use for the domain and, bizarrely, stating, "I would like to re-iterate the offer to take ownership of the Domain Name". As if its lawyers' letter last year had been a friendly chat. Nestle said if we didn't accept its 'offer' it would continue with the case, requiring us to produce a response to its 500-page report. Not a very good use of our time.

I repeated to the domain registrar that we wanted to cancel the domain and if Nestle wished to register it, that was its decision.

And so that is what has happened. Nestle is now the registered owner of the domain name. We'll keep an eye on it to see if it does post anything misleading.

And we can get on with 'engaging' with Nestle over its baby food marketing policies and practices.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Maybe they think taking critics to court IS engaging with them: