The public gets what the public wants

Anyone remember the Amstrad PC1512?

It was an inexpensive personal computer that enjoyed great success in the late 1980s. Rumours went round that it had a problem with overheating. Not true – but that didn’t prevent a blip in public confidence. Amstrad chief Sir Alan Sugar (plain Alan in those days) didn’t waste much time arguing the toss. He relaunched the product with a built-in fan. I remember him saying it was completely unnecessary, but that if people “want it with pink spots, it’ll have pink spots, just so long as they buy it”.

Children’s fingertips weren’t at stake with the PC1512 – but this week’s story that pushchair maker Maclaren had recalled 1m of its products in the US, after accidents involving 12 children, made me recall my days as a computer journalist.

Alan Sugar defused his perceived problem swiftly and effectively. It didn’t matter to him that there wasn’t a real defect with the product. He understood that his brand was in danger and offered a phantom fix.

By contrast, Maclaren initially bungled its treatment of non-American customers. Instead of offering all owners a hinge cover as part of a formal product recall, as in America, it simply warned non-Americans not to let children stick their fingers in the hinges as they opened the pushchairs.

Even in America, chief executive Farzad Rastegar, appeared to criticise parents, insisting the brand was among the safest in the industry and the injuries were due to those in charge of the pushchairs failing to take proper precautions.

Statistics do not reassure consumers when something so horrifying is involved, John Gapper said in Thursday’s FT. Maclaren’s safety standards were higher than cheaper rivals, he noted. After meeting a shaken Mr Rastegar for lunch in New York on Tuesday, he concluded that the company did not have “a bad story to tell” but it had done “a poor job in telling it”:

The consumer heard “amputation” and that was enough … Now Maclaren is backtracking under pressure from consumers and retailers and saying that anyone can have the hinge cover if they ask for it. The company might have avoided a lot of potential damage to its brand and its reputation by employing its common sense more quickly.

The Harvard Business Review editors’ blog agrees that a luxury brand built over years was tarnished in one day “thanks to what may be misuse of the product, not an inherent defect”.

But it is impressed by how the company dealt with the situation in America at least.

… it did the right thing in the US. It contacted the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s Office of Compliance and asked for its help in conducting a recall under the Fast Track Product Recall Program. That saved the CPSC from conducting a detailed evaluation of the product, and allowed the company to get out in front of the story as it hit the press.

HBR trawled its archives for a 2001 case study about a fictional baby stroller manufacturer deciding what to do after a highly publicised accident involving one of its products. Four experts offer advice such as “call the babies’ families” and “announce the recall in paid advertisements”.

Time is less generous, saying Maclaren was guilty of a “stumbling response online”. It considers the company’s predicament in the light of YouTube, Twitter and Facebook:

“Anything relative to child safety tends to be off-the-charts viral,” says Pete Blackshaw, a brand consultant for Nielsen Online. According to Blackshaw’s data, new mothers are three times more likely than others to use social media and start blogs …

A “safety first” message is the first thing to pop up on the Maclaren website at the moment. And a video the company sent to the Walletpop blog shows the proper technique for opening and closing the strollers.

As yet there are no plans for a stroller with pink spots.

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Christopher Cook is an FT editorial writer. Before joining the FT in 2008 as a Peter Martin Fellow, he worked for three years for the Conservative party.

Lorien Kite is deputy comment editor, a post he took up in 2009 after four years as a commissioning editor on the analysis page. He joined the FT in 2000.

Ian Holdsworth became assistant features editor in 2009 and was previously chief production journalist for the features pages.


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