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How better change communication could have eased Kraft’s post-Cadbury issues

May 24, 2011 Jonathan Hemus

Kraft took another battering from MPs this week as the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee said that it had “significant concerns” over its takeover of Cadbury in January 2010.  Rumblings from employees and unions continue, whilst the media delights in giving Kraft a hard time (the Mail on Sunday in particular has ensured that Kraft CEO  Irene Rosenfeld remains in the headlines for the wrong reasons month after month after month).

Kraft’s frustration at this continued criticism is obvious.  Quoted in the Financial Times, Rosenfeld said: “We have clearly shown ourselves to be good stewards of the brands, and yet the continuing assault has been somewhat surprising”.

So why is Kraft still generating negative headlines almost 18 months after the takeover and how can other businesses develop and implement change communication to avoid the same fate?  It seems to me that there are three key reasons behind Kraft’s change communication challenge:

1) Inadaequate understanding of the communication context

2) One expedient message eroded trust

3) A reticence to fully engage with stakeholders

Let’s take a look at these, one by one:

1) Context

Cadburys is an iconic British brand.  It has connotations of warmth, family and wholesomeness.  It has a corporate history of philanthropy, community and inclusiveness.  It is a symbol of the once great Midlands manufacturing base.  All of these factors mean that it is dear to the heart of many Brits.

As a consequence, a takeover by a global US corporation was bound to be met with concern, resistance and fear.  Understanding the perspective of affected stakeholders is essential to shape any change communication programme, but Kraft seemed to be unaware of these views or at the very least misunderstand their significance.  You won’t please all of the people all of the time, especially at a time of change.  But understanding their views and a plan to avoid turning sceptics into sworn enemies is the least you should aim for.

2) Trust

Saying what people want to hear makes communication so much easier.  But only if it’s true.  So when Kraft initially promised to keep Cadbury’s Bristol factory owner and then announced that it was unable to do so after the takeover, it made its change communication task inordinately tougher.  This perceived duplicity reinforced negative pre-conceptions and meant that future commitments were viewed with cynicism.  Recent evidence seems to suggest that Kraft is making good on its post-takeover promises; but the trust that it lost early on with that one inaccurate statement is almost impossible to regain.  The lesson?  Never jeopardise long term trust and credibility with a popular promise that you may not be able to keep.

3) Stakeholder engagement

A perception has grown that Kraft is stand-offish, or even evasive.  Irene Rosenfeld in particular has been criticised for her unwillingness to face parliamentary committees or engage with the UK media.  In many ways, this problem has been created and amplified by the first two issues.  Nevertheless, a greater willingness to listen and talk with stakeholders would  position Kraft more sympathetically and help to ensure that its messages are properly heard.  For other organisations facing similar challenges, remember that communication is an essential part of effecting successful corporate change.   And research shows that typically businesses under-communicate by a factor of ten during change management programmes.

Since its takeover of Cadbury, Kraft seems to have made good on its commitments: most importantly for chocolate -lovers, Dairy Milk remains on supermarket shelves, its original recipe preserved.  Its problems were created in the very early stages of this story when it failed to fully appreciate the landscape in which the takeover occurred, and reinforced negative perceptions with a promise it couldn’t keep.

The bottom line for other businesses enegaged in change management is clear: get your change communication right from the very start, or gear up for a challenging issues management programme in the months and years that follow.

Jonathan Hemus

  • Jonathan Hemus, Insignia Communications
  • Follow Jonathan on Twitter @jhemusinsignia

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