How Cadbury can market its way out of the pork chocolate scandal in Malaysia

Nandini Das GhoshalIn this guest post, Nandini Das Ghoshal cautions Cadbury that if it doesn’t act fast following the discovery of pork DNA in its chocolate in Malaysia, a boycott of the brand could quickly spread across the Islamic world. She also lays down some fundamental rules for marketing to Muslims.

Recently, Cadbury Malaysia, a part of Mondelez International, was caught unawares as the samples of two of their chocolates – Cadbury Dairy Milk Hazelnut and Cadbury Dairy Milk Roast Almond were found to contain traces of pork DNA.

This has led to calls of boycott by Muslim groups in the country. This mess will have to be sorted out to the satisfaction of the offended party if Cadbury Malaysia wants to recover from a loss of image as well as business in Malaysia.

There is a good chance that the ripples of this unfortunate incident will spread across the Muslim world in these hyperconnected times. 

The Cadbury boycott campaign

The Cadbury boycott campaign

But before considering options now available to the accused, here are some things that Cadbury Dairy Milk or any other global food brand needs to remember, especially if they are operating in a Muslim majority country. 

Muslim consumerism is a growing force. The Muslim Ummah [community] today constitutes 1.6 billion people. That number is expected to grow to 2.2 billion by 2030, according to the Pew Research Centre. In simple terms it means that by 2030, one in four of the world’s population will be Muslim. In Asia Pacific, it will be three in five. 

All of the 49 Muslim majority countries are thriving markets for global brands, notwithstanding the many countries where Muslims are present in sizeable numbers. As per the Thomson Reuters Report titled “State of the Global Islamic Economy” released in 2013, global spend by Muslim consumers of $1.62 trillion is projected to grow to $2.47 trillion by 2018. The Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC), as a set of 57 countries, is seeing growth rates surpass the rest of the world. 

Notwithstanding the numbers, a younger work force, affluence and education, the Muslim consumer of tomorrow is going to be more demanding, discerning and a force to reckoned with. 

United by Common Beliefs. The Muslim Ummah is united by a set of beliefs, which are unique and distinct. These beliefs are at the core of certain common behaviours. The Five Pillars of Islam are taught to most Muslim children from a very young age and are widely practiced to varying degrees. Values such as “purity”, “service to community”, “charity” and “education” resonate with practicing Muslims more than other communities, it could be argued.

While this may seem rudimentary knowledge to those in-the-know, most global brands are not aware of how these beliefs impact consumption behaviour, nor how a studied approach can better serve Muslim consumers.

The concept of ‘halal’, food that is permissible to be consumed under Islamic Law, is central to all food marketing to Muslims. Under these principles, pork is forbidden. Other things include intoxicants and alcohol, animals slaughtered in a cruel way, and so on. Most food companies have to have their supply chains certified as ‘halal’ by a recognised authority to even be eligible for sale in Malaysia. 

As far as the Cadbury Malaysia issue is concerned, it was probably one in a million chance that this happened. As with all large-scale manufacturers, Cadbury Malaysia probably did not have control over the source of supply of the raw material, and the porcine DNA got injected into a certain batch by accident. However, this explanation is not going to be enough for irate groups.

Cadbury has to get to the bottom of it and identify the source of the leakage.

Cadbury's message to Facebook fans

Cadbury’s message to Facebook fans

So, what can Cadbury do to restore trust? Is a Facebook message (right) enough? 

If someone betrays our trust, do they regain it by putting out a mere statement on a social media platform? In most cases, it doesn’t work that way. 

Cadbury has to demonstrate sensitivity towards Islamic values and principles. They need to demonstrate their empathy through consumer engagement programmes. 

At the very least, the two variants in question have to be re-tested and cleared by inspectors. There has to authenticity and “own up” from the Cadbury Malaysia head honchos and this needs to be done in person and quickly. In today’s era, consumers are more evaluative of messages. More social media declarations are useless. The leadership has to emerge from behind the scenes and lead a drive to restore trust.

A clean-up of supply chain lines and an audit of suppliers will have to be conducted and reports of the same shown to the public at large. The company may go a step further and invite opinion leaders to be a part of the audit themselves. 

On a deeper and more humane level, Cadbury will have to think of authentic community engagement ideas – programmes that not only make consumers feel wanted and included, but also loved. In a hyper connected world, the message of a betrayal spreads far and wide. The impact of this incident may be felt in many Muslim countries. 

From Cadbury Malaysia's website

From Cadbury Malaysia’s website

So, how to make consumers feel loved? This should not be too difficult for a brand that claims to be on a “mission to make Malaysia a happier nation”. One recent example that comes to mind in this space is Milo Malaysia organizing the Malaysia Breakfast Day along with the Family Run in which free breakfast meals were provided to about 20,000 participants. The objective was to reinforce the positive energy of breakfast but in a community setting. Service to community is a fundamental Islamic value. 

So how seriously should Cadbury take the threat of ‘Jihaad’? 

Firstly, use of the word ‘Jihaad’ itself is not recommended. Declarations like this by one or a few Muslim groups should not be extrapolated to the entire country. It’s a provocative and divisive adjective and colours the whole incident in an extremely negative light. 

There are instances in the past when brands have run into trouble for insensitivity. Nike ran into a logjam with the Muslim community for the use of a shoe design on the heels similar to the Arabic word for “God” or “Allah” in 1998. The controversy raised a lot of dust and Nike made amends by making a public apology as well as constructing three playgrounds dedicated to the Islamic community in the US. 

Consumers like to see commitment and a genuine spirit of service. I would like to quote a marketer friend from Malaysia whom I interviewed recently, as a part of our study on this topic: “The job of marketers is to serve customers, without ego or prejudice.” If one takes this philosophy to heart, the path to reconciliation is easy. Commercial interests can never be furthered by indifference or aggression. 

Global brands need to brainstorm and adopt a “policy for Islam sensitivity”, which has to become a part of their strategic ethos. Only then can a brand convince a community that it is serious in its commitment to serve them.

There are many marketing wars to be waged and won, but one based on violating someone’s core values is certainly not one of them. 

Nandini Das Ghoshal is the co-founder of Insights & More, a consumer insights and knowledge consultancy firm based in Singapore. 


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