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Sunday, February 04, 2007

Brand PR Failures: Gerber’s PR blunder

In 1986, Gerber, the German baby food manufacturer, made a critical PR mistake. When incidents of glass shards were found in its jars of baby food, Gerber remained tight-lipped and failed to issue a recall. This decision invited a lot of criticism with articles in Business Week, Newsweek and Time openly attacking the company on ethical grounds. Although the pieces of glass had not caused any fatalities, some babies had been severely hurt.

Glass fragments had originally been found in some Gerber products – namely, their apple-plum and apple-cherry juices – in 1984. But in that instance, Gerber handled the problem effectively. Although neither the company nor the authorities found a manufacturing-related cause, Gerber
recalled over half a million jars of juice.

In 1986, however, there were over 200 reports of glass being found in Gerber’s baby products across the United States. Although the authorities failed to discover anything that would warrant a recall, Maryland officials banned certain Gerber ranges from being sold anywhere in the state. Gerber’s response? The company sued the state of Maryland. Other than this legal reaction, Gerber did nothing. Not a word was said to the media about the issue, in the hope that the whole fiasco would just pass by.

From Gerber’s perspective, the company was doing nothing wrong. After all, nothing suggested that the fragments of glass were the fault of Gerber’s manufacturing process. It had certainly been under no obligation to recall its products. The company therefore believed that the state of Maryland was in the wrong and took what it saw as the appropriate legal action.

As Gerber saw it, a recall would only serve to generate more media attention and would have a negative impact on sales. It would also be expensive to implement. But Gerber forgot one important thing. Brands are about the public’s perception. It is not about proving who is right or who is wrong. By refusing to talk, Gerber was acting as though it had something to hide.

For a company that built its whole brand identity around the high quality and safety of its products, this was clearly a bad move. If you produce baby food, you have to constantly remind the public that you have parents’ and babies’ best interests at heart. By taking the state of Maryland to court, failing to issue a recall, and by then remaining silent, this was not the message Gerber put across.

Although Gerber’s brands survived the crisis, most analysts now agree the incidents were not well managed and that Gerber’s reputation suffered as a result.

Lessons from Gerber’s PR blunder

  • Make a public response to a crisis. As soon as the news arrived that some products had been tampered with, Gerber should have responded publicly and confirmed that it had the babies’ best interests at heart. After that, it should have been open to all lines of media enquiry. Most of all, Gerber should have looked like it was doing something, such as coming up with new types of product packaging to prevent tampering.
  • Provide information. At the time of the crisis, parents wanted information. For instance, Gerber could have told them how to distinguish between products that had been tampered with and those that had not.
  • Act tough. In a paper on the ethical issues surrounding the glass scare, Dr Philip Rothschild recommended that Gerber should actively and publicly lobby for increased penalties for product tampering. ‘They should make every effort to make someone else the bad guy,’ he suggested.

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