Brands do have a responsibility

Responsible marketing is no oxymoron. Companies that recklessly plug insufficiently tried and tested products soon discover why. They are assaulted with a crescendo of lobbyist pressure and media criticism, which eventually results in drastic loss of public confidence and shareholder value, possible prosecution, not to mention the termination of a few boardroom careers.

So, when product crises happen they are rarely triggered by recklessness. The problem is convincing critics that this is so – critics all too ready to see in muddled defensiveness and evasion a conspiracy of Watergate proportions.

Take the withdrawal of Vapona Fly Killer and Moth Killer strips from the market. Vapona has been a household name in the UK since the Sixties, pretty much synonymous with household hygiene. It now transpires that dichlorvos, the active ingredient in the strips, is potentially carcinogenic. Sara Lee Household & Body Care, the owner of the Vapona brand, has taken the responsible step of axing the product, despite the Health & Safety Executive granting the company a five-year licence in 1999.

The “science” behind Sara Lee’s decision is not altogether clear. The practical reality is probably a government ban on dichlorvos – an organophosphate – as early as next month. All the same, some uncomfortable questions about the axing of the products are left lingering in the air. How long has there been a suspicion that dichlorvos causes cancer – and, if for a long time, why was the suspicion not acted upon sooner? The company says it is merely being prudent, but seems very concerned to play down any suggestion of retailer pressure.

If it is difficult to emerge summa cum laude from this kind of crisis management, where circumstances are thrust upon you, how much more so must it be when the issue is all of your own making. Step forward Procter & Gamble, facing a precarious relaunch of Sunny Delight. As Alan Mitchell points out, Sunny Delight became a victim of its own success, making its fall from grace all the more devastating for P&G executives. How could this innovative, market-leading product worth, at its peak, about £150m lose half its value in two years? Smart-alec naivety seems the simple answer. P&G thought it had squared a circle by producing a soft drink that answered the concerns of mums – it appeared healthy, with a fresh, premium image – and yet appealed to children, by tasting sweet and sugary. All this with a very attractive profit margin: it contained only five per cent real fruit juice.

The ignored element in the equation was the health lobby, and the savage media campaign that ensued from its criticisms. P&G was portrayed as practising a deception on an unsuspecting public, with the result that it is now not only the product but the company’s integrity which is on trial. Not surprisingly, the “new improved version” appearing in April is all but shorn of health claims and features considerably more fruit juice than the original. The relaunch may be too late for the product, since Britvic has exploited P&G’s discomfort with a better positioned me-too. But it cannot come a moment too soon for the company’s integrity.

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