Procter & Gamble CEO David Taylor has been fighting back gamely against a nightmarish scenario for any corporate chief: when a teenage stunt abusing his product gets popular on social media and results in widespread illness, consumer confusion, and damage to a treasured brand.
Taylor has wasted little time in pulling out the stops against the new-year viral meme of kids swallowing Tide Pods as a sort of badge of courage, or at least misplaced daring akin to car surfing or the recent “cinnamon challenge.” He blogged about it and even enlisted New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, “Gronk,” to film a short online Public Service Announcement warning teens to just say “No!” to eating Pods.
No doubt Tide marketers are cheering the fact that their slate of Five Super Bowl advertisements on Sunday were some of the most popular with American viewers.
But some experts in crisis communications believe that P&G will have to do more – maybe much more – to stem the tide against Tide Pods and rescue a game-changing product that just can’t seem to get past complications with its revolutionary packaging.
“Ingestion caused excessive vomiting, lethargy and gasping – and even cessation of breathing in some cases.”
P&G introduced Tide Pods in 2012, and the single-use detergent capsules turned the laundry industry upside-down. P&G grabbed the early lead with the technology, but soon competitors came out with their own versions. Pods now make up about 15 percent of the $7-billion U.S. laundry-detergent market, but industry sales are down about 5 percent from the pre-pod period because, while pods are more costly per wash, the pre-measured doses help consumers not over-use liquids or powders. P&G even changed its original usage recommendation to two pods instead of just one.
But while the packaging innovation jump-started Tide sales and prompted other brands to copy-cat, the company soon was dealing with an unexpected wrinkle: Toddlers were grabbing the colorful pods when they could, seeming to think they were candy, and ingesting them, resulting in too many emergency-room visits by worried parents.
Ingestion caused excessive vomiting, lethargy and gasping – and even cessation of breathing in some cases. Through early 2017, Consumer Reports said, eight deaths had been reported due to the ingestion of pods, six of them involving P&G brands.
P&G responded to this problem by distributing Tide Pods in opaque tubs and bags, by implementing a bitter taste in Tide Pods, by improving child-safety features and issuing extensive parental warnings.
The problem with teenagers ingesting pods is, of course, a different matter because they know full well what they’re doing and that they’re likely to get sick from meeting the dare. Social-media videos show kits biting into pods, or cooking them in frying pans and chewing them up before spewing the soap from their mouths.
Last year, about 220 teens were reportedly exposed to pods, and about 25 percent of those cases were intentional, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers. So far this year, there have been a few dozen cases among teenagers, about half of them intentional, reports said. They’re resulted often in vomiting, breathing difficulties and even loss of consciousness.
P&G has responded by expressing its deep concern about the practice and warnings that the pods shouldn’t be used for such purposes, “even if meant as a joke.”
In January, Taylor blogged about the steps P&G was taking to “do what we can to stop this dangerous trend,” including leaning on social-media networks to remove videos and partnering to spread warnings, as well as posting the Gronk video.
Also, referencing his own role as a father, Taylor wrote, “Let’s all take a moment to talk with the young people in our lives and let them know that their life and health matter more than clicks, views and likes. Please help them understand that this is no laughing matter.”
But should Taylor and P&G be doing more? One expert in crisis communications suggests that they could be – and maybe soon will need to be. Steve Cody, CEO of Peppercomm, a New York City-based marketing consultancy, told Chief Executive that P&G should be more “pre-emptive” in anticipating abuses of its products and “be ready with a full arsenal of communications tools to address any issue” that arises. “Be serious and adamant and do what it takes.”
Cody also advised that P&G’s R&D folks should get to work on “a new product that is completely impenetrable” by would-be pranksters until it’s in the wash. That would be taking a page from Johnson & Johnson’s iconic handling of the Tylenol poisoning crisis in 1982, when the pharma maker recalled 31 million bottles of its popular pain reliever and came out with new tamper-proof packaging.
“So [Tide Pods] would be off the shelves for three months?” Cody said. “They’d come back and gain 10 percent of market share right away because they did the right thing, the way that Tylenol did.”