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Pat Thomas

Infant formula, social listening and the art of persuasion

By Pat Thomas, 01/11/17 Articles
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A young mother fills in a short online survey to enter a draw for free baby goodies. Another joins a mother and baby club promising discount vouchers and daily ‘how your baby is growing’ information sent directly to her phone.

Still another joins a mother and baby ‘community’, where likeminded ‘friends’ can talk to each other about their experiences and take part in free live chats with nutritionists, midwives and doctors. Still others spend their free time scrolling through pages of nutritional advice, information and products, casually signing up to newsletters for alerts of upcoming sales.

Today more than ever before, women use the internet to exercise what they see as control and independence. Free from the pushy middleman in a physical shop, they can make their own choices in their own time.

What most don’t realise is that every keystroke, interaction and piece of personal information is being collected, analysed and used to shape not only their online experience but also their perceptions of motherhood as a whole. In the marketing world, this is known as social listening.

Instant analysis 

With social listening, the demographic information that once would have taken months to collect is available instantaneously. Companies actively mine this data to tweak their online presence to increase reach, engagement and ultimately sales.

The Code expressly forbids manufacturers of infant formula from reaching out directly to mothers to promote their products. But social listening gives companies an entirely new set of tools, which use deeply effective emotional hooks to subtly steer woman towards a brand and its products.

It’s not called ‘selling’ anymore, it’s a ‘brand conversation’; and marketers aren’t salespeople, they’re ‘friends’ taking part in the mother’s ‘journey’. In the online world, companies rarely need to mention infant formula anymore to gain a customer’s trust and make a sale.

‘Digital is the way to manage the brands in the future. The relationship, brand conversation through the digital media, is so powerful that it has an impact, even before print or television advertising happens’, notes Patrice Bula, Nestlé EVP, Strategic Business Units, Marketing. [134]

Nestlé’s Digital Acceleration Team, which began as a central listening post in the company’s headquarters in Vevey, Switzerland, now has satellite stations worldwide. The company refers to the information gleaned as ‘digital vitamins’ [135] that help boost its performance.

Because women are less guarded among ‘friends’ in their online ‘communities’, they are often more open about what they think and feel, like and dislike. What they may not realise is that some of the other mothers are paid to be there.

Danone Nutricia Early Life Nutrition, for instance, has a team of mothers who act as community managers on its websites: ‘We support those looking for advice and friendship in the social media framework. There is no shame in asking a “stupid question” to a friendly supporter, a fellow mother on Facebook’, says Susie Clark, Managing Director of the social engagement agency that helped put the mother/managers in place.’ [136]

More mums online

The digitisation of our lives has had a significant impact on how we talk about, learn about and share information around motherhood and breastfeeding. More than half of all women responding to one US survey said they intended to share their birth experience online in real time. [137] Moreover, time online increases after the birth; 44% of US women spend more time online after a new baby is born, [138] and increasingly new mothers are seeking breastfeeding information and support online. [139]

In China, the world’s biggest baby market, more than 90% of mothers shop online using a smartphone. [140] Convenience is major motivating factor, but faster payments, discounts offered to smartphone users and force of habit are also major motivators for staying online.

Few, if any, would be aware of the way that social listening is used to create near-addictive online experiences. Immersive web platforms with plenty of colour and movement, sound and games and subtle ‘rewards’ help distract mother from the spin, keeping them plugged in and brand-loyal.

Speaking their language 

Social listening also helps companies speak to mothers in their own language. Knowing, for example, that ‘LB’ means little boy or ‘DD’ means darling daughter is invaluable when engaging online or in message forums. [141]

Understanding language also helps companies tailor their marketing language from country to country to make it more compelling. As one data-mining company employed by Danone noted, when parents in China talk about a child’s difficulty digesting formula, there are echoes of traditional Chinese medicine [142]:

For the brand looking to engage consumers, they have to use the [market’s] consumer language … In China, people talk about “internal heat” … In other countries for instance, Germany talks about colour.

A new frontier 

Data mining on social media provides insights that cannot be gleaned through traditional focus groups, and the methods that companies use are constantly evolving. The newest tool is emotions analytics (EA), which uses emotion recognition software to analyse facial expressions and listens to language and tone through social media.

Multinationals like Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Coca-Cola and Danone are already engaged in this process and see it as the ‘next frontier’ of big data.

Many are actively preparing for the time when face recognition software is embedded into apps and devices – it’s already in many televisions – opening up new dimensions of subtle sales spin. [143]

Wearable tech, for example, could be used to track users’ moods and target customers with ads when they are most likely to buy. For example, according to a study by Yahoo, reaching consumers when they’re feeling ‘upbeat’ could increase the general effectiveness of advertising by 24% and that of digital advertising by 40%. [144]

But as Danone’s strategy and insights manager, Alex Ward-Booth, notes: ‘you mustn’t be able to see the spinning underneath, or how it is trying to push you in a certain direction, or it becomes too transactional’. [145]

Mothers need protection

The impact this data mining has on infant feeding trends worldwide is a cause for concern. [146, 147]

In 2006, the WHO concluded that ‘a decision on whether to use infant formula and, if so, which product and how, should not depend upon the effectiveness of commercial advertising’. [148]

A decade later, in May 2016, an editorial in medical journal The Lancet [149] urged a complete ban on social media channels: ‘From tobacco, to sugar, to formula milk, the most vulnerable suffer when commercial interests collide with public health … Robust advertising regulation – covering all milk products for children up to three years, and banning social media promotion – is the next step to protect them.


  • This excerpt written by Pat Thomas, is taken from the Changing Markets Foundation report, Milking It. Pat was one of several independent researchers who  contributed to the report. The full report and references can be found here.
  • To coincide with the report Sum of Us, the global online campaigning platform, launched a petition on November 1 calling for Nestlé to make sure their infant milks are safe, nutritionally complete and based on science. It gained nearly 60,000 signature son its first day. The petition can be signed and shared at this link.