LONDON: Consumer goods giants are facing battles on all fronts - squeezed on shelf space and price by supermarkets in home territories, and hit by slowing growth in emerging markets. But increasingly they are also having to defend themselves from social media ambush attacks which threaten to cause lasting damage to customer appeal and their balance sheets.
Unilever, the maker of Dove soaps, Cornetto ice creams and Surf washing powder, is the target of an ongoing campaign by a 28-year-old Indian rapper, Sofia Ashraf, who last week poured salt on 14-year-old wounds.
Riffing on the tune of Nicki Minaj's platinum hit Anaconda, she transformed the lyrics from a celebration of women's bottoms to the much more serious issues of Unilever's alleged toxic waste dump in Kodaikanal, a city in southern India.
The video, Kodaikanal Won't, neatly employs her skills as a former copywriter at Ogilvy & Mather by accusing the consumer giant of hiding behind its "Pepsodent smiles" and "washing its hands of Kodai with Lifebuoy" - tying two of Unilever's most popular toothpaste and soap brands in the country with an environmental disaster. The video, which calls on Unilever to "clean up your mess", has already racked up 2.7m views online and sparked a response from Paul Polman, Unilever's chief executive. Mr Polman, a regular on Twitter, also employed the trending hashtag #Unileverpollutes. "Determined to solve. Need others too and facts not false emotions," he said.
One large institutional investor, with a heavy exposure to Unilever and other consumer stocks, spoke privately about these kind of left-field attacks which are beginning to be taken seriously by the City and provoking multi-billion companies to change tack.
He name-checked one particular controversial health food crusader, the blogger Vani Hari, who has built up a loyal following and gained a spot in Time magazine's "30 most influential people on the planet".
The food activist has been celebrated and derided in equal measure for her unscientific attacks on artificial ingredients in food, such as dubbing the plastic-based additive used in Subway sandwiches the "yoga mat chemical".
But within less than 24 hours of launching a petition on her Facebook page, Subway said it was already in the process of removing the chemical. In February, General Mills, one of America's biggest food manufacturers and the maker of Cheerios and Lucky Charms cereals, announced it was removing food additive butylated hydroxytoluene, which prevents vegetable oils from going rancid, from its products. It followed another push on Hari's Food Babe blog. This was not because of safety reasons, General Mills said, but "because we think consumers will embrace it". The year before, after more Hari action, Kraft took steps towards removing tartrazine, commonly known in Britain as "E number sunshine yellow" from its all-American food staple Macaroni and Cheese product.
The growth and sophisticated use of social media mean that it no longer takes documentaries such as Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me to have an impact on customer perception. A subversive message with a catchy song, or a food blog that includes pictures of the author practising yoga in a yellow bikini will do the same job. And that should be enough to scare the big boys in consumer retail.