Maclaren, the British baby pushchair brand, has just landed itself in the biggest crisis of its 44-year history after mishandling a recall of its products.
I do not know how much of Maclaren’s sales the umbrella-style stroller models in question account for, but it must be a lot. One million of them are being withdrawn from the US market, after 12 children suffered amputations after getting their fingers caught in the retracting hinges. Given that the pushchairs retail at an average of over $400 each, that the US is MacLaren’s largest market, and that it will have to fit plastic protective coverings to the hinges of each and every one of the recalled strollers, we can easily grasp the financial scale of the crisis.
But money is not the really important issue here. Maclaren markets itself as “the world’s most safe, durable, innovative and stylish baby buggies and strollers”, so the recall is a huge slap in the face. The strollers are an iconic representation of the company, on which its reputation stands or falls. And the way things are looking at the moment, it’s likely to plummet.
Why? After all, taken step by step, Maclaren has done some of the right things. It has clearly assessed the risk issue over a number of years, and found it to be infinitesimally small from a statistical point of view. Once adverse publicity began to affect its sales, it readily co-operated with the US Consumer Product Safety Commission and organised a voluntary recall.
What it has not done is reassure customers in its other markets, particularly its home one, that it will treat them on the same level. It has also failed to communicate its point of view, let alone a comforting message. Instead, we have virtual radio silence. In short, Maclaren has given the impression that it is at once arrogant and timid: not a winning combination for the future.
It’s arrogant, because it seems to be saying that the rest of the world doesn’t matter as much as its US customers. All right, we know the extenuating circumstances. There aren’t nearly as many mangled fingers over here; and trading standards officers have not put the same pressure on Maclaren for a recall. Lastly, and most cynically, we may guess that Maclaren has more to fear from ambulance-chasing shysters in the US than anywhere else in the world.
Even so, the lame suggestion that UK and European customers can make do by contacting the company and acquiring a safety kit free of charge simply won’t do. We should be so lucky. The company website was inaccessible when I tried it and the phone lines are most likely permanently engaged.
In a major brand crisis, a bunker mentality is the last thing you need. Anticipation, not calculated reaction, is the name of the game. Put out a message of reassurance. Let it come directly from the chief executive. Don’t hide behind PR flunkies. Engage with the media personally. Apologise (even if no apology is strictly warranted); and do it in print, with newspaper advertisements (they’ll get picked up on Google soon enough).
That’s exactly what Mars (not a company you naturally associate with humble pie) did a few years ago when it took a wrong turn on one of its key confectionery ingredients. Mars made an careless mistake when it decided, without consultation, to start using animal rennet, so alienating a vocal minority of its customers – vegetarians. After 6,000 people complained, Mars UK md Fiona Dawson personally took charge of a remedial campaign that involved asserting unequivocally “The consumer is boss” and spending millions of pounds on broadcasting an apology. She even gave out her personal email address.
What Mars seems to understand, but Maclaren so far doesn’t, is that small things are everything in marketing. Small things like the minute amount of benzene that destroyed Perrier’s primacy as a mineral water brand; the minor changes to a syrup formula that nearly did for Coke; the minute amounts of salmonella found in Cadbury’s plant; or – even – 12 little fingers. When commercial success relies on something as emotionally charged as a child’s safety, the importance of a caring attitude towards your customers cannot be overemphasised.