The Together Nestle Relationship Center consolidates Nestle's below-the-line activities in Japan and brings it into direct contact with about 1.4 million consumers, representing 4% of all households made up of two or more people.
It was developed by Nestle at an undisclosed cost in partnership with two Tokyo-based organizations, McCann Worldgroup's MRM Partners Worldwide, part of Interpublic Group of Cos., and Bellsystem24, a CRM-solutions agency.
Nestle hopes that by speaking directly with consumers and listening closely when the center's members speak with each other, it will develop useful insights about one of its largest markets. Nestle's sales topped $2.6 billion in Japan in 2002, yielding about $132 million in net profit.
The relationship center differs from a traditional call center in that it is the hub of every communication with consumers. All telephone calls, e-mails and handwritten letters from consumers are responded to by center employees, and all customer feedback is shared with Nestle, MRM Partners and Bellsystem24 to shape future communications. Nestle customers, called "center members" have access to call-center hot line, a Web site with a bulletin board and other interactive mechanisms. They're also sent a magazine and invited to special events, such as one in a kitchen where staff prepare Nestle products and try out meal proposals, even recipes submitted by the members.
Nestle stepped up its CRM activities in many global markets, including Japan, several years ago, out of a desire to focus more on its consumers. "This sort of effort is invaluable in today's world, when consumers are increasingly in control," said Pam Maphis Larrick, CEO, MRM Partners Worldwide. The data derived from the call center "helps us figure out how a marketer can maintain its relevance to consumers."
The Kobe center is the evolution of a special project developed by MRM Partners for Nestle in Paris three years ago, on a larger scale. MRM is exploring the possibility of taking the call center into other markets with other clients as well as with, possibly, Nestle.
When Nestle turned greater attention to the hot line, it found only 20% of incoming calls were complaints. The rest were from people who wanted more information about the 160 products that Nestle sells in Japan and the opportunity to share suggestions.
"In the early stages, we discovered consumers care about who's behind our products and brands and are willing to talk to us. This realization led to a big turnaround in our attitude and mind-set. Plus, use of new technology, like mobile phones, is expanding among all consumer segments in Japan, which helped make the idea for the center more cost-efficient," said Midori Kaneko, Nestle's communications director for Japan.
Nestle's hot-line operators, many of whom are middle-aged women, were encouraged to draw out consumers, even bond over lifestyle and family issues, to learn how its products are consumed in Japanese households.
The average call lasts six minutes, compared to the national average of one or two minutes. "Having a meaningful dialogue, to build an emotional bond with the consumers, is the objective of the communicators of the call center," said Tokyo-based Masayoshi Tadami, president of MRM Partners in Japan.
The insights are shared with production, sales and marketing teams. For example, Nestle discovered many Japanese consumers, particularly petite women and older people, faced difficulty holding and opening bulky Nescafe Gold Blend jars. The company developed containers with a better shape and opening mechanism, implemented a trial test among the center's members and eventually launched new jars nationwide.
Nestle also discovered through the call center that Kit Kat, which sounds like "kitto katsu," a Japanese phrase for "sure winner," was gaining street cred as a lucky charm among teens. It developed an annual campaign aimed at high school seniors who travel during April to take on-site university entrance exams. Japanese students typically spend the night before exams cramming at hotels, so Nestle struck a sampling deal with many hotels to give each student a free KitKat bar at check out as a good-luck charm.
The center is also testing Nescafe Fragile, a premium refrigerated coffee drink with a short consumption period. "It was considered extremely difficult to market this product, so it was made available at a reasonable price on a trial basis over a limited period of time," said Mr. Tadami. The reaction was so positive that Nestle repeated the program. Through the hot line, bulletin boards, e-mail and letters, "We found out that members were also using the product as a gift to friends. In the second Fragile program, this was reflected in the communication to the members, suggesting the gift usage."
contributing: lisa sanders