Kashi: All Natural Disaster

By now, you might have heard a little bit about the pickle that Kashi has found themselves in. If you haven’t, here’s the scoop: Kashi, the godfather of natural food brands, has been under fire from folks who feel that Kashi isn’t as natural as they claim. The big sticking point is that there’s Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) – soy in particular – in their granola bars.

How’d this all get started? A humble health food store in Rhode Island pulled Kashi from their shelves and posted this note on the shelf:

As you can imagine, all it took was one customer’s smartphone snapshot to send this image viral on Facebook.

Now, far be it from us to get into the nitty gritty of all this “natural” hullaboo. Ecosalon has a detailed rundown of the industry standards, federal regulations, and whatnot. The bottom line is – Kashi insists that they didn’t do anything wrong because the term “natural” is not federally regulated, and therefore up for them to define. But we don’t have to tell you that customers have their own definitions, and their own very angry thoughts to share on the matter. All you have to do is check out the explosion on Kashi’s Facebook page to see where customers stand.

Since we aren’t nutritionists or federal regulators, we’re going to weigh in on the stuff we know best – how did Kashi handle all this on social? After all, that’s the very place where the whole story started… what are they doing to ensure that there’s a happy ending?

What They Got Right

They didn’t get “hide happy.” When faced with a social media crisis like this one, it’s tempting to pull a Chapstick and just click “hide” on every negative wall post or comment. But Kashi made the brave decision to leave at least some negative posts up and respond to them publicly. This kind of transparency goes a long way in re-establishing your brand as one that can be trusted.

Their responses are judicious, respectful and informative. Now, Kashi has been fairly choosy with who to respond to so far, a strategy that has pros and cons. It is true that over-responding can give the impression to your community of fans that you are attempting to tamp down every criticism. Instead, they are responding to posts with direct questions to Kashi, or that include factual inaccuracies. And with those responses, their messaging strikes the right tone:

They showed they were taking it seriously with two videos. We give Kashi props for putting the time, effort and budget into producing two YouTube videos to address the situation. While a written statement would have covered the same material, creating two separate videos shows that they really are listening and understand that this is a Big Deal. Check them out: “Kashi’s response to recent news” and “Kashi’s Commitment.”

They are attempting to rectify what their consumers are upset about. Despite the fact that Kashi has done nothing wrong by the standards of the law or the food industry, the fact is that they have been convicted in the court of public opinion, and that’s all that matters. We are impressed that rather than trying to totally damage control the heck out of this with “you’re wrong” messaging, Kashi has made a commitment to having 100% GMO-free granola bars by 2014 and at least 70% USDA organic certified ingredients by 2015.

What They Got Wrong

Their videos lacked authenticity. Hey, we don’t want to be in the business of kicking brands while they’re down. Still, we couldn’t help but notice the staccato reading of the nutritionist in Video #1, and the gentle but ever-present sound of the cue cards flipping. We weren’t the only ones:

Thankfully, Video #2 made several improvements on the first. General Manager David DeSouza went outside rather than sitting at a generic desk (much more on-brand) and appeared to speak moreso from the heart. Still, our biggest bone to pick had nothing to do with the setting of the videos…

Customer concerns were not validated. Haven’t they heard the phrase, “The customer’s always right”?  Rule #1 in online community management is to make the audience member feel heard, understood and appreciated.

While Kashi had some great messaging, never did they simply say, “We understand why your initial reaction to this would be disappointment or frustration, and we are sorry if you feel that we have let you down. We never want you to feel that way.” This isn’t just good customer service – it’s about reinforcing the message that Kashi is a brand that that wants you to care about what you put in your body.

Of course, we get that the buck doesn’t stop with the social media pros. Some lawyers probably advised Kashi to avoid admitting fault or apologizing – and their reasons are probably quite valid. But we wish they had been able to reassure their customers a bit more. We know from experience how far that kind of approach can take you.

The Takeaway

The most obvious lesson to learn here is that you should never underestimate social media and the viral potential of pretty much anything. Facebook’s recent adjustment to algorithms make images in particular go viral more easily than ever. Thus why it’s important to always be monitoring the online airwaves for mentions of your brand, so you don’t get caught with your pants down!

But beyond that, we believe that transparency will always serve you well. Obviously some transparency about their products and claims could have come in handy from the beginning, so that the issue could have been avoided to begin with. That’s another lesson altogether about marketing claims. Remember, just because you are playing by the industry’s rules doesn’t mean you are playing by your customers’. But Kashi has already made great strides in the direction of openness and authenticity, and though there are some things they could have done better, we hope that their efforts will serve them well in the long run. We still like their granola bars, robot-soybeans and all.

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