Gate 28, Heathrow Airport. I am sprinting through a short transfer on my way to Mumbai. The phone rings. The reporter swiftly asks me: “Would you comment on the Maclaren recall? How do you think it will affect the brand?” All my answers seem to flow easily on the tram to Terminal B: “Maclaren’s proactive and immediate response demonstrates their commitment to customer safety. Empathy for the injured--infants and parents--and massive distribution of safety kits are sound actions. Do you remember the Mattel recall in 2007? The Mattel brand gained a huge deal of post-recall positive exposure for taking a position and pushing for more scrutinized monitoring of manufacturing standards. Were they impacted? Certainly, but a lot less than the China brand, which became the culprit of all toys’ manufacturing sins. So, how will the Maclaren ride in hell impact all other stroller manufacturers?”
The call is over. I reached Gate 46, finally sit, anxious to capture some BBC World news. Headline pops: “U.K. not to recall Maclaren strollers.” An obviously peeved British spokeswoman comes on: “This recall is adequate for the U.S. market and the overreaction of the U.S. consumer is predictable. However, our customers in England have displayed more responsible caution using the product. No incident has been indicated that common sense could not have prevented.”
As an American customer, I feel insulted, but I am also torn. I am a Maclaren customer. Four years of fetching the device across street walks, subways, planes and continents, through all possible weathers and time zones. I feel horrible about those fingertips, but that stroller survived it all and deserves some respect. I would never let my son stand close during the constant folding and unfolding exercise, which I mastered one hand, one foot at the time.
I board… Mumbai is on cyclone watch. We will land in the middle of a typhoon. I am certain my stroller would have weathered that crisis, but how will Maclaren get out of their branding maelstrom? What would the Indian brand experts think about the recall? The revelation strikes upon arrival. A stack of strollers emerges at the gate. Four Maclarens. One Graco. I wait, stand and watch.
All owners are wealthy Indians. They grab the buggy device like luxury gifts. I humbly offer: “Can I help? Want me to carry this for you? Did you hear about the recall…are you aware of the finger incidents?” I get a wise smile from a spectacular Indian lady with perfectly ornate Henna hands stroking the curly ponytail of a 2-year old: “It is a story for Americans…” Here we are again: insulted. “Unless you can control your pushchairs and your children, you should not own one.” Pragmatic. Who is at fault? Why would the brand pay for its customer’s lack of diligence?
Or is this just a necessary response to Americans famously litigious nature?
The lesson learned here is that the life of brands across and between cultures can hit treacherous waters. When a brand chooses not to manage its dialogue culturally in a global marketplace, the result can and will have a major impact on the success or failure of a brand, regardless of the market.
If brands want to capitalize on the potential and opportunities available in a global marketplace, companies need to create a strategy to keep true to their brand position while taking into account the sensitivity of working throughout multiple cultures, without making judgment calls or assumptions about the differences to be managed market-by-market, culture-by-culture.
Three days in Mumbai felt like a wink. Leaving a typhoon, global brand meetings and lots of hazardous street foods behind, I drag myself around the corridors of Terminal 2 in the wee hours. Strollers piled on the side. I forgot Maclaren… No stroller was encountered in the street of Mumbai. Just kids running and knocking onto our car windows with tchochkes to be sold for a rupee. On the other side of the world, have the blogs stopped their soaring of uncontrollable fears over lost fingertips and swine flu? Have the Brits comforted the Americans in managing the uncontrollable?
It is heaven in the making when time comes to crash for a non-stop 16-hour flight. I browse through the international papers. Stop and start feeling angst at one more Maclaren headline. Daily Telegraph: “Maclaren refuses to offer safety device to British customers. Maclaren, the pushchair manufacturer, is coming under increasing pressure to supply a safety device to all their British customers, after nearly 1 million buggies were 'recalled' in the U.S.” What on earth can Maclaren marketers be thinking? Why are they doing this to my beloved stroller! By ignoring the “home market” of its brand, Maclaren walked right into the middle of an even broader, and global, public relations disaster.
When my son declared his stroller independence, I gave away our Maclaren Volo to my best friend, mildly heartbroken at losing the instrument of so many shared travels and discoveries, but trusting the stroller would deliver that much to her and her daughter.
Conventional wisdom says, you adapt your brand to the idiosyncrasies of a given culture. But the bond between parents and their children transcends cultural barriers. Whether Americans, as judged abroad, were being unpragmatic or overly litigious, the reality is that all parents, regardless of country, value the safety of their children above all else. And will, therefore, reject a brand that appears to disregard that.
For Maclaren, it was time to go back to core principles and the universal appeal of their brand--top-of-the-line in every respect. A universal commitment to deliver the most proactive approach to providing safety measures, in every place a Maclaren would stroll.
Sophie Ann Terrisse is the founder and CEO of STC Associates. She can be reached at email@example.com.
— Nielsen Business Media