Kate Marsh Lord, a mother of two small children, lives in Niceville on Florida’s Gulf coast. Since January 2009, she has also been “The Shopping Mama”, author of one of the more successful online “mommy blogs” that review new children’s products and swap ideas with other young mothers across the country.
Earlier this month, the Shopping Mama and her two children found themselves en route to Cincinnati, Ohio, invited to the headquarters of Procter & Gamble, the world’s largest consumer goods company.
Along with three other blogging mums, she spent a day at the company’s baby care centre, hearing P&G managers and researchers talk about the work they had put into developing the Pampers Dry Max nappy, or diaper, the company’s newest iteration of its most successful global brand.
“We spent a day there hearing from them, meeting people who make prototypes by hand, and seeing the place where they have babies and toddlers test out new designs for fit,” says Ms Marsh Lord.
But for P&G the visit was not just about developing relationships with bloggers – it was also part of a full-scale campaign aimed at defending the new Dry Max product, which has been beset in the US by online critics since it was first launched at the start of this year.
The debacle, involving angry parents, lawsuits and inquiries from the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), is one of the biggest crises ever to hit one of P&G’s usually masterful new product launches. It is also becoming a telling example of the way that new online social networks have shifted the traditional dynamics of the consumer products business and have undermined a brand’s ability to shape public reactions.
The new Dry Max version of Pampers, officially launched on March 1 in the US, was billed as the “driest and thinnest” ever of Pampers nappies, 20 per cent lighter than its predecessor. Pampers is P&G’s best-selling brand, with sales of about $8.5bn worldwide last year, more than 10 per cent of total revenues.
The advertising was accompanied with the kind of online strategy that is now a familiar part of all large household product launches in the US, with samples of the new, lighter product sent out to bloggers, including Shopping Mama, in order to build grass-roots enthusiasm.
But almost immediately things started to veer away from P&G’s usual script.
“Mama” in San Diego complained in one of many critical online reviews on Diapers.com, the online retail site, that the product worked “like teflon”. “I will never buy them again ... I have never bought diapers that worked so poorly.”
“Lib” from Arlington, Virginia, was even less happy. She complained in early April that her child had developed “probably the worst case of diaper rash she ever had”, after just one night.
P&G initially responded to customers’ complaints on an individual basis, monitoring the growing online commotion as it developed. But by early May more and more parents were claiming that Dry Max nappies were causing bad rashes. A Facebook page appeared claiming that that children had suffered “chemical burns, infections, and severe diaper rash”. The page gathered more than 6,000 fans.
Then, in a surprise blow, the CPSC unusually made a public statement that it had decided to look into parents’ complaints, launching a flood of mainstream media coverage. Local television stations started talking of a “health alert” on the product and speculating on a possible recall.
P&G immediately launched a full-scale counter-offensive. Jodi Allen, head of its North American baby care division, appeared on morning television shows. On May 6, she put out a strongly worded statement about what she called “growing, but completely false, rumours fuelled by social media”.
“These rumours are being perpetuated by a small number of parents, some of whom are unhappy that we replaced our older ... products, while others support competitive products and the use of cloth diapers,” she said. “Some have specifically sought to promote the myth that our product causes ‘chemical burns’.”
P&G also insisted that it had received fewer than two complaints for every 1m diapers sold, “which is average for our business”.
The robust tone of P&G’s response came as a surprise to loyal customers, who expect stories of troubled babies to engender the kind of warmer response characterised by P&G’s “Pampers Village” online community for parents, with its gentle tone and parenting tips.
“When I first read their press release, it felt a bit cold,” says Ms Marsh Lord, the Shopping Mama. “It did not help put out the fire or make people feel their voices were being heard.”
Leigh Householder, a digital advertising expert at GSW Worldwide, an advertising agency specialising in pharmaceuticals, is also critical. The response, she says, made bloggers “feel attacked and misunderstood ... They characterised the bloggers in some pretty unflattering and ugly ways”.
Kim Thompson, an expert at the Harvard School of Public Health who specialises in risk assessment and also advises P&G, agrees that the statement “did not come off as very sympathetic”.
However, she says it “was a really important statement for them to make, because people were starting to worry”.
P&G knew it had to do more and simultaneously stepped up plans to engage with the online community through steps such as the mommy bloggers’ trip to Cincinnati. So, according to company, it is pursuing twin tracks: vigorously repudiating claims that the diapers are harmful, while also trying to “communicate all that we’re doing to listen and act to help moms and dads”.
The battle is far from over. The Dry Max brand is still scoring below competitors on consumer product review sites.
Ms Thompson believes the affair has alarming implications for other companies in consumer healthcare. P&G’s unhappy consumers were, she says, self-diagnosing the cause of what is a medical problem – nappy rash – by relying on potentially tainted information picked up from social networks, rather than from a visit to their doctor. “That really is a problem,” she says, which will pose challenges to innovation.
Digital marketing experts are also still trying to understand the lessons from P&G’s problems. Mike Volpe, head of marketing at HubSpot, which provides software platforms for digital marketing, believes that this episode underlines the challenges for a process of product development that was developed “in a time when consumers did not have a voice, and there was no notion of consumer feedback, reviews and social media”.
P&G’s customers felt “duped or tricked”, he said, by the introduction of innovation in a familiar product that they were not expecting. The lesson is, he suggests, that “if they had more consumers involved more intimately in the product development process, then they would have been advocates for the product as it came out”.
Ms Householder at GSW argues that P&G should also have engaged with the blogging community earlier on, before events reached a crisis.
“It should have brought those four bloggers in weeks ago,” she says. Now, with both sides “entrenched”, she argues that Pampers will have to continue its efforts to engage with consumers’ concerns and at the same time personalise its own brand, perhaps using a blog to give customers some insight into the people behind the launch.
“Most people engage in social media with good intentions ... they want to be heard. So I think the point for the brands is not to try to shut them down, but to listen and hear them.”