The challenge of control in the age of social media – Garnier, the Israel-Gaza conflict and the threat of boycott

How much damage has Garnier Israel done to the Garnier global brand through its local actions? (image source: http://www.deliberation.info)

Listen long enough to any communicator working for a multinational in an emerging market and they’ll touch on the issue of what is called ‘corporate’. The concept of centralized communications, of control being exerted from head office over global communications is understandable – corporations want to ensure that the message being disseminated is consistent with the aims of the company as a whole. Rather this than each country office doing as they wish, which may result in local messages which are not in alignment with the global communications.

Combine this with the reach and immediacy of social media, and the implications for going off-message can be explosive. Many brands have been implicated in the recent Israel-Gaza conflict, and issues such as this have the ability to polarize opinion, particularly online where millions have been expressing their support for and anger with one side or the other.

While many of the brands who have been targeted by Pro-Palestinian groups advocating for boycotts have in effect kept their own counsel and said nothing (with the exception of Starbucks which took the step of reiterating that it neither operates in Israel nor supports the Israeli army), Garnier was caught out by its local operations.

Halfway through the conflict Garnier Israel had donated 500 gift packs to StandWithUs, an Israeli advocacy group which promotes the country to the world through social media. During July and August StandWithUs also undertook a number of domestic initiatives such as providing gift packs to soldiers on the front line and in support functions.

First, StandWithUS donated the 500 gift packs from Garnier to a group of female Israeli soldiers. The organization then promoted the handout on its social media channels (most prominently on Facebook), with the following comments:

“We are honoured [sic] to be delivering these “girly” care packages for our lovely female IDF fighters!

Today’s delivery of care packages was stocked with thousands of products for our girls protecting Israel. They even received facial soaps and minerals, so they can still take care of themselves, eve while defending the country.

Shout out to the Garnier Israel|גרנייה for the amazing donation of facial soaps, minerals and deodorants!”

Unfortunately for Garnier, the post was quickly picked up by Pro-Palestinian social media goers. As the UK’s Independent newspaper noted on Saturday the 9th of August, the Facebook post alone had been shared over 22,000 times and had garnered 3,000 comments, most of which were calling for a boycott of Garnier products. The post has also inspired a hashtag, #BoycottGarnier, calling for consumers to shop buying the brand. Even Garnier’s own brand ambassador to the Arab World, Hind Sabry, took to the media to voice her displeasure at what had happened. The Independent curated some of the reactions to the post which I’m including below.

A week after the now-infamous post Garnier USA released a comment distancing itself from the donations by Garnier Israel (have a look below). But, is this too little, too late? In a globalized world of brands which are commonplace in every country on the planet and which need to appeal to as many consumers as possible, what can companies do to ensure that the action of local entities doesn’t harm their global image when it seems that nothing can be communicated to an external audience in private?

“Garnier values peace and harmony and has a strict policy of not getting involved in any conflict or political matter. The hand-out of about 500 products was part of a local retailer initiative. This was managed strictly at local market level and we are very sorry if anyone was offended,” Garnier’s Corporate Communications Director Ms Kerr said.

In the age of social media, the assumption has to be that if the message is going to alienate a specific stakeholder group, then just don’t put it out there, period. For corporations the size of Garnier, that’s easier said than done.

PS To make matters even worse, Garnier’s apology has reportedly upset Israelis who have now vowed to stop buying the company’s products according to the Times of Israel.

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