Mars Celebrations one use

No one could accuse Mars of lacking decisiveness with its chocolate recall.

Because a small piece of red plastic was found in a Snickers bar in Germany, the confectionery giant is pulling a month’s production run of Mars, Milky Way, Snickers and Celebrations products from shelves around the world.

Mars isn’t putting any figures on the recall, but they are bound to be eyewatering. The Veghel factory in the Netherlands that made the plastic-stricken Snickers and triggered the whole affair makes 27 million chocolate bars a day and distributes them to 60 countries. That’s a hell of a lot of chocolate to be taking off the market voluntarily (especially in the run up to the crucial Easter trading period), and Mars will win plenty of goodwill for not shirking the hit.

However, this recall also highlights the communications challenge big multinational companies face when things go wrong.

While its operational actions have been decisive, Mars’ comms efforts on the recall have been more hit and miss.

Feedback from store managers we’ve spoken to suggests communication with the trade has been handled well, but other PR activities have been rather more sluggish.

When news of the recall in Germany broke early on Tuesday, it took until the afternoon for Mars to confirm if and how the UK was affected. By then, stories about the recall were everywhere, illustrated in many cases (and rather unhelpfully for Mars) with full-size Mars bars – which are being recalled in other markets but not the UK, where mainly funsize products are affected. The ease with which consumers can now access information from around the world online clearly poses a real challenge for a market-by-market approach to communications.

“Crisis management is rarely about making clear-cut decisions, and it often involves working with limited information at the time.”

Jonathan Hemus, Insignia Communications

Shoppers looking for information on the recall straight from the horse’s mouth also found it harder than they should have. The Mars corporate website was offline for several hours on Tuesday after news of the recall broke. And while now carries a news item about the recall on its homepage, the Mars UK site (at the time of writing) still doesn’t. Nor does there appear to have been any proactive communication on Mars’ branded social media channels – the corporate Mars Twitter account (@MarsGlobal) tweeted about the recall on Tuesday but that account only has about 14,000 followers; meanwhile, there’s been nothing much on big brand accounts like @snickers or the various Mars Facebook brand pages. “Why haven’t you posted this on your page?” one visitor to the Snickers UK Facebook page asked yesterday, pointing to press coverage of the recall.

In Germany, where the recall has been more far-reaching than in the UK, Mars has faced considerable criticism over its communications efforts and has even been forced to promise to up its server capacity to ensure its website stays up. Plus, it’s investing in extra staff for its customer care hotline, which collapsed in the wake of the recall announcement.

In Mars’ defence, it’s not hard to see how updating a Facebook page or issuing product shots or even investing in extra server capacity may slip down the list of priorities in the midst of a major recall. But that’s exactly why communications experts stress the importance of thinking of such seemingly small details well in advance of any crisis.

Jonathan Hemus, founder of Insignia Communications, is impressed overall with how Mars has handled the recall, but says it highlights how hard it can be for big corporates to pass HQ decisions on to the front line quickly and efficiently.

“There is not enough time to organise these things when you are in the middle of a situation,” he says. “Crisis management is rarely about making clear-cut decisions, and it often involves working with limited information at the time.”

It’s a point also stressed by Rob Metcalfe of Richmond Towers. Like Hemus, he is positive about Mars’ recall efforts overall, but urges brands to complete a crisis communications audit in readiness for any problems. “But, of course, very few companies do this!” he warns.

Those companies that aren’t currently auditing their crisis comms would do well to use the Mars recall as a timely reminder to step up their game. Because when crisis hits, the smartest operational decision-making counts for little if it isn’t matched by equally smart communications.