I have watched with amusement how new Robertson’s Social Media Manager Sonia Cabano has been going about her new job in the past ten days, one she has never done before, given that brand diplomacy would be expected of her at all times. Twice last week she demonstrated that she is too political to do this job without damaging the Robertson’s brand reputation.

The word ‘Masterclass’ caught my eye in the Robertson’s TV commercial during the MasterChef SA broadcast last week, and since then I have been trying to understand what it means in its use as a pay-off line for this MasterChef SA sponsor.  I requested an explanation via e-mail of the claim on Twitter, and in reply was referred to the very slow to open website developed by digital agency Liquorice, and was told that Robertson’s does not send e-mails to its customers. On Friday late afternoon I called the Unilever Consumer Centre helpline number (0860331441) on the Robertson’s website, and had to listen to an abrupt unfriendly male voice giving the operating hours of the helpline, being Monday – Friday from 8h00 – 16h00! That was amusing in itself, in that most cooking is done at night, and if Robertson’s is spending millions on its MasterChef SA sponsorship and advertising, why would it not have a helpline with customer-friendly hours! I wanted to share this on Twitter, and noticed with surprise that we had been blocked on Twitter by Robertson’s, which means that we no longer receive their Tweets.  In Social Media terms this is extreme censure. One could sense how Sonia Cabano had to contain her sharpness she is known for on her personal Twitter account (@SoniaCabano2), one on which she regularly blocks followers for ‘trolling’ her, she writes, yet she runs anonymous Twitter accounts with Skye Grove, disparaging other Tweeters, including ourselves.  Sonia Cabano is unknown as a ‘chef’, having never cooked in a South African restaurant kitchen, but has written three cookbooks, and presented a TV cooking programme ‘Pampoen tot Perlemoen’ many years ago.  In an interview in Rapport’s ‘My Tyd’ ten days ago, she trod on bloggers’ toes by disparaging them: ‘…enigiemand wat al ooit ‘n houtlepel vasgehou het, deesdae ‘n blogger of koskenner is’. One would have thought that, as the new Social Media Manager for Robertson’s, she would recognise bloggers as one of her key target markets, in creating exposure for and encouraging the use of her client’s brand and products!

On the Robertson’s Twitter account Sonia Cabano’s output has been admirable, with just over 300 Tweets and 280 followers in just ten days, but the frequency of Tweeting has slowed down, and they do not appear to Tweet on Sundays! The Twitter volume was extremely low yesterday. Interesting was her ‘interview’ with top 50 ‘bootcamp’ finalist Jade de Waal via Twitter last week, the only contestant that she has interviewed on behalf of Robertson’s to date, showing favouritism towards her (commendably declared) friend and relative (De Waal was her maiden name). She may also be ‘communicating’ that this contestant has won MasterChef SA, something the rest of us will only know in 17 weeks!

Given that I was not getting any joy from the Robertson’s Twitter account, I looked for ‘Masterclass’ on the Robertson’s website, one which is not the easiest to navigate, as it does not show the pages on the site.  It was when I clicked on to ‘Competitons’ (sic), that I found a sub-page entitled ‘Masterclass’, being a video of Chef and Robertson’s endorser Reuben Riffel making a ‘Cheesy garlic bread with home-made herbed butter’! I had double-checked the term ‘Masterclass’ earlier in the week, when I had written about the Robertson’s ‘Masterclass’ pay-off line, and had found it to be a term used in the field of music in the main, denoting a revered person giving a class.  A chef told me that it could relate to cooking too, and used Chef Liam Tomlin giving a cooking class at Liam Tomlin Foods as an example.  The term has two parts – it implies that the person giving the class is recognised as an ‘expert’ in his field.  One can question whether Chef Reuben still has this status, not having made the Top 20 shortlist for the latest Eat Out Top 10 Restaurant Awards, and (ironically) for having damaged his reputation by lending his name to Robertson’s in radio and

TV ads, which have been running for months. Serious food lovers say Chef Reuben has sold out to Robertson’s, and are horrified that he could be using Robertson’s products in his Reuben’s restaurant kitchens!  Secondly, the term implies that one would be taught serious dishes, and a simple garlic bread probably has been made by every houseperson, not requiring any explanation or education. No other recipes are on this page yet, disappointing if there is an expectation to learn something new to cook every day, especially over the 18 week duration of MasterChef SA.  Odd is the description ‘Chef’s Camp Classes’ on the same page, an alliteration that can be badly misinterpreted! It may have been intended to refer to the ‘bootcamp’ for the 50 MasterChef SA finalists. There is no information yet to show that Chef Reuben was involved with MasterChef SA.  On registering on the Robertson’s website, one receives an e-mail, welcoming one to the ‘Robertson’s Masterclass’, and inviting one to ‘Put on your apron, fire up your frying pan and get ready for a delicious journey into the world of Robertsons herbs and spices. As a student of Robertsons Masterclass, you have the chance to craft your everyday culinary skills in your own home. Fill your kitchen with the exotic aromas of nature’s finest flavours as we show you how to use these wonderful ingredients to add vibrancy and fragrance to all your favourite dishes’. Misleading is the claim that one will learn the ‘tricks of the trade from one of South Africa’s best chefs’!

Yesterday I spoke to co-Managing Partner Jay Thomson of Liquorish, the Social Media Marketing agency handling the Robertson’s digital account, to check the company’s policy about blocking Twitter accounts. While not working on this account, he spontaneously said that blocking anyone on a client’s Twitter account is not their agency policy.  He took action immediately, and reinforced agency procedures and approval processes, which had not been followed, he shared with me.  He apologised personally, and so did the brand on Twitter, honestly admitting its mistake, and Robertson’s reversed the blocking: “Apologies&welcome back guys! Unfortunately processes weren’t followed on our side. Really do value fdback of SAs top foodies!”. Robertson’s Liquorish Account Director Chris Jones also called with an apology. The company did not Tweet anything further for the rest of the day.

Robertson’s will become an interesting FMCG case-study in how not to apply Social Media Marketing in a consumer brand marketing mix. Personal politics do not belong in a business application for a brand, and will do Robertson’s serious harm if its Social Media Manager is allowed to express her personal dislikes and vendettas.  I have been assured by Liquorish that this will not happen again, yet cannot be sure if this promise will be honoured, given the Twitter tirade on Ms Cabano’s personal account last night, as well as on her anonymous Twitter account, which was been downright disparaging of her client Robertson’s.

POSTSCRIPT 7/4: Reuben Riffel, Robertsons’ advertising endorser, has presented three more ‘Masterclass’ videos on the Robertsons’ website. A very simple ‘Chocolate Banana’ (but the video is called ‘Braaied Bananas’) ‘Masterclass’ was lightweight, and did not tell one how to make the chocolate sauce, only giving instructions of how to cut the banana and caramelise the sugar sprinkled over it.  Another ‘Masterclass’ is for making ‘Cinnamon Crepes’, thinner French-style pancakes Chef Reuben said.  A third ‘Masterclass’ video is for ‘Cracked Rosemary and Paprika Potatoes’, the video called ‘Twist’.  Interesting is the viewership of the ‘Masterclass’ videos, at 449 views for the ‘Crepes’ video, 195 views for the banana video, 33 views for the potato video, and 559 views for the garlic bread one, which was the first ‘Masterclass’ by Chef Reuben. The viewership statistics must be frustratingly low to Robertsons, given what it must be spending on advertising and its sponsorship of MasterChef SA.  The typing error on the Robertsons’ website, identified in this blogpost, has been corrected, but the double-meaning alliterated ‘Chef’s Camp Classes’ has been retained!

POSTSCRIPT 20/4: The link to Another Damned Food Blog, which in October last year wrote a parody about Chef Reuben Riffel’s endorsement of Robertsons, is circulating again.  Now that MasterChef SA has started, it is even funnier to read now!

Robertson’s, www.robertsons.co.za Twitter: @RobertsonsSpice (Monday – Saturday only).  Episode 2 of MasterChef SA will be broadcast on M-Net at 19h30 this evening.

Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com Twitter:@WhaleCottage