Lay off!

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(Published in Aurora, September-October 2009 issue)

By Jahanzaib Haque

What are the odds that one fine day Junaid Jamshed would appear on national TV to endorse a brand of chips as being halal? For some, this could be the Twilight Zone of advertising, but the reality behind the facts that drove Frito Lays Pakistan into taking such a step could well be every brand’s worst nightmare: an emotive rumour that spreads like wild fire through the power of word-of-mouth.

Lays chips may be a relatively new player in Pakistan, but since it entered the market in 2006 and until the start of 2009, it has managed to snatch almost 70% of the market from competitors such as Super Crisp, Kurleez and Slanty. Priced at a mere five rupees, it seems that Lays was able to extend its market well beyond its traditional, urban 16-24 year old target segment and reach mass appeal.

However, such rapid success might have also been cause for hostility. Be that as it may, in April this year, an email began circulating in Pakistan containing allegations made by a Dr Amjad Khan of the ‘Medical Research Institute, USA’ that Pakistani-manufactured Lays chips contained the ingredient E631 which, he claimed, was derived from pig fat. Dr Khan went on to tar the brand as haram and unsuitable for consumption by Muslims.

The email then took on a life of its own; bloggers started posting cautionary articles online while SMS messages labelling Lays as haram began to circulate. As if this was not enough, a secondary attack was carried out via anonymous letters sent to retailers and people engaged in Lays’ distribution network, demanding that they boycott the product.

In reality, E631 is a flavouring ingredient which can be made using multiple methods including animal fat or plant material, and the E631 ingredient used in making Lays chips is derived from tapioca starch (plant material). It is also worth mentioning that many other products in the market, including soups and chicken cubes use E631.

Frito Lays Pakistan reportedly tried to track down Dr Khan (as did Aurora) but he turned out to be untraceable. Attempts made by the South African National Halal Authority and the Islamic Food and Nutritional Council of America to find him also yielded no results, suggesting that the email could have been an orchestrated attack on the brand.

Despite the fact that ‘Dr Khan’s’ claims proved to be unsubstantiated, the religious context in which they were couched had a hugely negative impact on customers. At first it seemed that it was the brand’s older consumers (35+) who were most disturbed by the allegations. However, given their religious context, these concerns soon spread to the brand’s younger audience as well.

In the first half of May 2009, things began to go badly wrong when Royal TV ran a series of negative reports on the product. These reports were then picked up by other TV channels (Al Huda, Aaj, Express, City42). It was at this stage that sales of the product began to plunge, prompting Frito Lays to form a crisis management team with CMC (Corporate & Marketing Communications) on the PR front and Interflow Communications on the advertising front.

The initial strategy was to communicate that contrary to rumours, the brand was not haram. (The decision to actively promote Lays as halal only came later.)

To this end, in mid-May Frito Lays made available to the press a series of endorsements it had obtained from international and local scientific and religious authorities clarifying that Lays chips were halal. In conjunction with these efforts, Lays released a small-scale print, TV and poster campaign that focussed on these endorsements. In addition, letters were mailed to retailers and distributors refuting the allegations made in Dr Khan’s email.

Yet, consumers still refused to buy Lays.

According to industry sources it seems that the peer-to-peer dialogue engendered by word-of-mouth continued to sow considerable doubt, with the result that a large proportion of customers preferred to play it safe and avoid the product.

Unable to rebuild sales volumes, Frito Lays Pakistan changed tack and opted to go for a full frontal celebrity endorsement via a mass media campaign. Given the context, the choice of celebrity was inspired. Who better than pop star turned religious authority and former endorser of Pepsi, Junaid Jamshed to reassure nervous consumers that Lays was halal and nothing but? (According to sources it was Taher Khan, CEO Interflow Communications who thought of Jamshed.)

Jamshed was approached and duly convinced to undertake the endorsement. A TVC and radio spots were developed where he endorsed Lays as halal, and asked the public not to buy into rumours without due inquiry.

With Jamshed munching Lays chips, the public began to respond and sales began to recover.

Ironically, however, the appearance of Jamshed sparked off yet another (albeit less toxic) controversy for Lays, with some segments of the public querying the wisdom of a celebrity endorsement as a means of addressing a controversy of this nature.  Perhaps more critically, the Jamshed campaign also served to bring the controversy to the attention of people who until then had been unaware of its existence.

In the end it seems that Frito Lays Pakistan was caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.

Did the company initially underplay its hand by adopting a low-key approach when the email started circulating, only to find itself forced into overplay mode with a media campaign featuring a super celebrity driving home a single message?

In the end perhaps what matters is the result, and it seems that after being badly shaken, Lays has bounced back and regained its market share.

What will be interesting to see is how Frito Lays intends to shape its future communications strategy. Will the company be able to move forwards and away from the ‘we are halal’ branding that has been imposed on it, or will it be forced to continue to hang on to Jamshed’s coat tails for the foreseeable future?

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One thought on “Lay off!

    mcphisto said:
    September 12, 2009 at 11:57 pm

    great piece, jay ! how about getting quotes from JJ on this ?

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