On your port side, cookies

Nestlé is sailing the Amazon with a floating grocery store to try to reach a lucrative, untapped market

Marie Hippenmeyer

For the month of July, Nestlé Brasil has unleashed a floating supermarket barge on the tributaries that thread deep into the Amazon region in an attempt to reach some 800,000 Brazilians living in isolated, riverside communities. “We are going to pick up the customer where he is,” announced Ivan Zurita, the CEO of Nestlé Brasil, in a statement. “This will be a service to the population of the Amazon, which has streets and avenues in the form of rivers.”

Wherever the boat docks, locals can come aboard and wade through 1,000 sq. feet of supermarket space packed with more than 300 products, including chocolate, cookies, yogourt and ice cream. To meet the needs of poorer customers, Nestlé will sell smaller, more affordable packages of their branded foods and enrich them with nutrients to address deficiencies in local populations.

The idea originated with Nestlé’s regionalization program, which was established in 2003 to dream up marketing strategies aimed at this underserved corner of the world. Reaching remote consumers is a key part of the Swiss food giant’s strategy in the coming decade, during which time it estimates that nearly half of its sales will come from emerging markets.

Indeed, David Dunne, a professor of marketing at the Rotman School of Management in Toronto, argues that successful “bottom-of-the-pyramid” marketing (an inversion of traditional marketing targeted at the developed world) depends on cultural sensitivity and good ethnography—or regionalization. “A lot of companies have made the mistake of taking lower-cost versions of their products and simply marketing them to poorer people,” he says. “But the ways of marketing to the poor are different.” For example, retail channels and advertising venues change in the developing world, where televisions are scarce. “This [awareness] is particularly important for something like food, which is very culturally bound,” he adds.

While clever, the remote marketing Nestlé is undertaking in the Amazon is not unique. Companies such as Coca-Cola, Avon and Wal-Mart have been targeting the developing world for decades, and Unilever has already made gains in Brazil, creating a distribution network in the country’s shantytowns. But critics warn that Nestlé must tread softly. Michele Simon, the author of Appetite for Profit, argues that the introduction of sugary foods may exacerbate obesity rates and health problems—something akin to the epidemic in the northern hemisphere. “If there are people out there so backwards to still be subsisting on food found in nature,” she writes, “Big Food will find them, by land or by sea.”

Others say let them eat chocolate if there is the demand. Jessica Chelekis, an anthropologist working in the Amazon, expects locals will embrace Nestlé’s boat scheme. “People [in Brazil] who can afford it will buy yogourt or a bag of chips. These are things people would want to have the opportunity to buy.” Plus, she notes: “Outsiders say this is an example of poor people being convinced to spend their hard-earned money on frivolous things. But this says more about our ideas of what the Amazon is and should be than what’s actually happening on the ground.”

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.