Nestle India yanks KitKats featuring Indian gods after consumers call them disrespectful

January 25, 2022, 11:03 AM UTC

Nestle India has pulled some KitKats from shelves after consumers complained that candy packaging featuring images of a Hindu god and goddess was disrespectful.

The chocolate wrappers depicted the Hindu God Jagannath and Goddess Subhadra in the traditional folk art form of Pattachitra and the words: “Discover vibrant handicrafts near you.” Jagannath, an avatar of the Hindu God Krishna and his sister Subhadra, are particularly revered in the eastern Indian state of Odisha.

The packaging sparked an explosion of complaints on social media by Indian consumers in Odisha who lambasted Nestle for the imagery’s lack of sensitivity.

Others acknowledged that the company was trying to promote Odisha’s culture but were nevertheless critical of the gods’ appearance on a wrapper that consumers will eventually discard.

In a statement to Fortune, Nestle said the company “had preemptively withdrawn these packs last year.” The company declined to comment further on the timing of the matter. 

In a separate statement, a Nestle India spokesman said that the company understood the sensitivity of the matter and regretted that it had “inadvertently hurt anyone’s sentiment.”

“We wanted to celebrate the culture of Odisha with designs on packs representing ‘Pattachitra,’ an art form uniquely identifiable by its vivid imagery. We wanted to encourage people to know about the art and its artisans. Our past campaigns have also shown that consumers like to collect and keep such beautiful designs,” the spokesman said.

Pattachitra is a traditional folk art form whose origins trace back as far as the 12th century. Pattachitra artists predominantly paint images based on Hindu mythology.

Nestle is just the latest brand to bungle religious connotations in recent years. In 2020, jewelry and watch brand Tanishq faced backlash over an ad that showed a Muslim mother-in-law organizing a traditional baby shower for her Hindu daughter-in-law. The topic of inter-faith marriage is a sensitive one in India, which is predominantly Hindu, and some critics slammed the ad for depicting a Hindu woman marrying into a Muslim family and not the other way around.

Clothing brand Fabindia withdrew an advertisement for a new line of clothes last October after protests from members of India’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. Fabindia launched the collection under the Urdu name ‘Jashn-e-Riwaaz’ on the eve of Diwali, considered as the most auspicious festival for India’s majority Hindu population that speaks Hindi. BJP members argued that the use of Urdu, which is mostly spoken by Muslims, was inappropriate for a line that was tied to Diwali.

Marketing experts say Nestle’s KitKat wrapping was a rare slip up by the multinational company.

“There is a need to be very sensitive when you tackle issues that have dimensions of politics and religion. Increasingly, brands have to be watchful as it is very easy to cause offense,” says Lloyd Mathias, business strategist and former marketing head of HP, Asia-Pacific. ”At these times, social media can amplify things.”

Last February, India introduced new information technology rules that increased government oversight of digital publishing platforms, including social media such as Twitter. The rules give the government greater oversight to demand that platforms remove content deemed  “objectionable.”

Nestle previously faced consumer outrage in India in 2015 after Delhi state officials claimed lead and monosodium glutamate in Nestle’s Maggi instant noodles were above the permissible limit. 

The current controversy over the design of KitKat wrappers is playing on a far smaller scale, but industry executives underscored the danger of any slip-up given social media’s power to amplify issues.

“A packaged food company has to be extra careful because things tend to blow out of proportion,” says Virat Mehta, former communications director with Nestle India. “It’s a large company and it’s unfortunate that something has slipped through.” 

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