Insight: learning from digital start-up culture

Nov 6, 2013
Patrice Bula, Nestlé’s Head of Marketing
INSIGHT: Patrice Bula, Nestlé’s Head of Marketing.

By Patrice Bula

When we partnered with Google to name the latest version of their Android operating system after our KitKat confectionery brand, we knew it would create a huge online buzz, but few of us realised just how big that buzz would be.

Since the story broke in September, there have been more than 1.6 billion impressions about it alone.

I think it shows how hungry consumers are for innovative and engaging digital content that heightens their experience of their favourite brands.

And for us, it confirms that the ambitious goal we’ve set ourselves to go further and faster in digital than the rest of our industry is a worthwhile one.

Online conversation

You may wonder why we care about this. After all, we’re the world’s biggest food and beverage company, not a technology business.

Well, for a start, food generates an enormous amount of online conversation.

You just have to look at the explosion of food blogs and healthy eating websites, the thousands of recipes shared online every day, the millions of people searching for nutrition advice, or the person on the table opposite uploading photos of their meal to Instagram next time you go out for dinner.

People, wherever they are in the world, are highly motivated to discuss and share thoughts about the importance of what they eat. We aim to be part of this conversation.

Innovation outpost

That’s why we’ve set up a digital innovation outpost in Silicon Valley, California.

The region is home to a large number of online platforms that have an ever-increasing influence on the way consumers talk about products and brands, including ours.

Established leaders such as Facebook, Google and Twitter, as well as emerging ones like Pinterest, are shaping the future of communication.

A range of other start-ups are developing new platforms and applications that give brands even more opportunities to become part of consumer conversation.

Relationship management

We believe that by working more closely with established platforms as well as with high potential startups, we can better understand our consumers’ needs and respond to them more quickly.

As a company we have tremendous amount of nutrition knowledge and expertise that we want to be able to share with consumers in ways that are more accessible, and ultimately more useful to them in their day-to-day lives. This is especially true in relation to helping children make healthier choices.

Already, the outpost has helped our brands better manage their relationships with their growing number of fans and followers through so called ‘social content management’ systems.

Looking ahead, the team will continue to identify new digital technology partners for possible collaborations, to help us engage with consumers in more meaningful ways.

Listening and engaging

When I first visited Facebook’s headquarters in Silicon Valley in 2011 with my team, we spent much of our time with one of the company’s top product developers.

They explained the ‘hack’ culture that has helped Facebook and others like it to innovate at a genuinely breathtaking pace.

STRENGTHENING RELATIONSHIPS: Nestlé’s Digital Acceleration Team at work.

We were so impressed by the speed, agility and adaptability of these organisations, we wanted to instill the same kind of culture in our own workplace.

Young talent

It was this visit that inspired us to create a Digital Acceleration Team (DAT) at our headquarters in Switzerland.

We select our brightest young people from marketing and other functions across the world to be part of the DAT for eight months at a time. They work on projects for specific brands and businesses, as well as participating in our own Nestlé ‘hacks’.

It’s essentially an innovation lab to help us strengthen our relationships with consumers.

Learning experience

All this is a long way from where we were three years ago. It would be fair to say that back then we hadn’t really acknowledged the impact social media was having on the way consumers were interacting with our brands.

It was something we learnt to our cost when Greenpeace launched a well-executed (and now well-documented) social media campaign against us.

We were taken by surprise, and our response was poor. But it was a wakeup call. It forced us to examine our approach to digital and social media, and to start again.

Moving forward

I think the progress we’ve made since then shows that big companies can innovate, and can move quickly.

We now have DATs in a number of countries including India, China and Italy, while many of our most popular brands are leading the way in innovative consumer communications.

From the Perrier ‘Secret Place’ interactive experience that lets you ‘attend’ a secret party as one of 60 different personalities, to the ‘It all starts with a Nescafé’ campaign, which combines on and offline content to follow what happens when people go to the houses of their Facebook friends with two mugs of coffee, to find out just how friendly they really are.

Sharing ideas

As a company, we’re embracing new technology. In February, we started using quick response (QR) codes on some of our products, to give people instant access to information about their nutritional profile and environmental and social impacts, simply by scanning them with a smartphone.

And Purina broke new ground for us in May when it acquired Petfinder, the world’s largest and oldest website for pet adoption and our first-ever acquisition of an online content property.

But we still have a lot to do, and a lot more to learn.

So if you’re a digital technology start-up with great ideas you’d like to share, we’re listening. And we’d like you to know that we’re doing our best to make it easier for you to reach us, wherever you are in the world.


Patrice Bula is Nestlé’s Head of Marketing.

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An earlier version of this blog incorrectly stated the figure of 1.3 billion tweets, this has been corrected.