Irritation flares at Pampers HQ as Dry Max comes under fire

The anticipated growth surge of Procter & Gamble’s ultra-innovative Pampers Dry Max hangs in the balance as complaints of nappy rash pepper social media sites in the US. In an age when the gossip-mongers of Facebook and Twitter yield significant consumer power, Euromonitor International advises Procter & Gamble to choose its battles wisely.

The hand that rocks the cradle

A cardinal rule of retail selling holds that the customer is always right. By challenging a customer or rejecting their criticism of a product, you risk hurting the way your company is perceived. Better to swallow some humble pie by acknowledging the complaint, even when there is no foundation, and occupy themoral high ground. It is the surest way to nip things in the bud and mitigate any future downside.

That fundamental relationship between companies and their customers has never been more important than in today’s internet savvy and social media frenzied culture. Ten years ago, a complaint about a product would normally have been raised directly in the store of purchase, or through a telephone call to a company’s customer services line.

It would have been low impact and unlikely to escalate beyond a micro-problem. Today, that same complaint can be magnified via Facebook or Twitter and, if managed badly, spiral out of control.

So why on earth did Jodi Allen, Procter & Gamble’s Vice-President for Pampers, rail this month against “a small number of parents” who were voicing concern on social media sites about an alleged connection between nappy rash and Pampers Dry Max technology, accusing them of spreading “completely false rumours”?

Like a red rag to a bull, this type of tough posturing was only ever destined to antagonise. And let us remember that we are talking not about any old customers here, but about mums and dads that, you have to believe, have the best interests of their children at heart.

Procter & Gamble will argue that a small number of complainants hijacked the agenda with a deliberate strategy to undermine Pampers. And they might be right. But, the company should have held its composure for as long as the problem persisted and focused completely on rebuilding trust in the safety and reliability of its brand.

If the complainants did indeed have a wider agenda, Procter & Gamble looks to have played into their hands by climbing into the pit and rolling up its sleeves.

Without doing anything, Kimberly-Clark, maker of archrival Huggies, could be the big winner (See Euromonitor International comment, ‘Nappies war intensifies’, May 2010). The problem for Pampers is that mud tends to stick and even though the accusations of nappy rash and chemical burns seem to lack any real substance, the mainstream US media, which will almost always side with the consumer over the company, has picked up the story and run with it.

In all probability, sales of Pampers Dry Max will be weakened over the short term while the development strategy of the brand globally could get derailed.

Where there’s smoke there’s fire

It is a bitter pill to swallow for Procter & Gamble because so much marketing muscle had been flexed in support of Dry Max. When the super-absorbent technology was rolled out in the US last year, it was hailed by insiders at Procter & Gamble as the iPod of the nappy world and the category’s most significant innovation in a quarter of a century. Quite simply, expectation was huge.

In 2009, Pampers generated global retail sales of US$10 billion, according to new data from Euromonitor International. That was some 65% higher than second-ranked Huggies. Crucially, Procter & Gamble was confident that Dry Max could beef up Pampers’ market value by as much as US$2 billion a year. In short, Dry Max was a key strategic card to steal a further march on Huggies.

That US$2 billion absolute growth target is still reachable over the medium term, but will be less likely the longer the current PR crisis prevails. To turn things around, Procter & Gamble needs to be much smarter in the way it deals with disgruntled consumers. Critically, the company should recognise the steadfast rule that mums and dads, as customers, are always right. If the company takes that as a given, there will be less PR fires to put out going forward.

One of the challenges for popular brands is that consumers often loathe change. Hence, any radical updating of Pampers, a beneficiary of widespread brand loyalty, was always destined to cause ripples of discontent. It is also true that some babies were likely to experience a skin reaction to a change in their nappy type, just as they might to a change in the washing powder used for their clothes. It is fair and right for Procter & Gamble to make this type of point.

It is, however, ill advised to react over-defensively to product criticism because, right or wrong, it leaves a whiff of culpability in the air. Procter & Gamble rarely slips on PR banana skins, but there were some bad judgement calls in the way this Dry Max crisis was allowed to get out of hand. Going forward, Pampers needs to bite the bullet and live up to its billing as a global brand leader.

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