Brand China struggles under the weight of product recalls

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China is struggling to protect its brand; the country has been hit repeatedly over the last several months with product recalls that would make Ford blush. First it was the diethylene glycol as glycerin problems in Panama that can only be described as tragic – Beijing’s assertion that the blame fell to the Panamanians, a sad indication that they hoped the problem would just go away. What followed was a cavalcade of tainted products; toothpaste, fish, tires, toys, the list keeps growing. The New York Times said on Tuesday that baby bibs made in China and sold at the U.S. toy outlet Toys”R”Us have been found to be contaminated with lead paint. The hits keep coming.

China has been caught up in a vicious news cycle, and it looks like it will continue for some time as Beijing appears incapable of shifting the story. A lack of qualified spinmeisters in the Chinese government doesn’t help either. The most common reaction has been to first deny the problem, when that tactic become untenable, blame the foreign media for blowing this out of proportion. It is only after several weeks of continued pressure from external (Western media, governments, NGOs) and internal (consumers, bloggers, an increasingly outspoken media) that Beijing has been forced to announce remedies, solutions, or when all else fails, a pre-selected scapegoat to take the fall for the system.

But by the time the announcements are being made that Zheng Xiaoyu was sentenced to death or a new regulatory body would be established to monitor overseas food shipments, the damage had been done. It all sounds a bit too familiar. Critics argue that Beijing’s handling of SARS allowed the virus to spread worldwide. And it’s China’s lack of transparency that is raising global concern over bird flu and what appears to be a particularly virulent strain of blue-ear pig disease.

Beijing has recognized that no longer can it simply report what it wants, and expect the media to toe the line. Imagethief commented last month on China’s commitment to change, saying that he was grateful to see that CCP was finally taking PR seriously.

Imagethief firmly believes a more contemporary approach to public relations and media management will benefit the party, which remains rather mired in the “shut up and do what I tell you” tradition of media management. As a PR man I can appreciate the attractiveness and elegance of this model, but I must also concede that it is less effective than it may once have been. I’m pretty sure if I tried “shut up and do what I tell you” on the Wall Street Journal I’d get a steno pad crammed up my nose.

The efforts to save the brand are showing some positive results. New regulations are being put in place, enforcement, long a difficult proposition in places where they still say “Heaven is high and the emperor is far away,” has been stepped up, and China is finally learning that avoiding news deemed to be a problem doesn’t always result in that problem going away. The Made in China brand will bounce back, too much of the world is using it for there to be a significant backlash, but toy sales in the United States and Europe in the coming holiday season will no doubt be lower for products made in the Middle Kingdom.

2 thoughts on “Brand China struggles under the weight of product recalls

    Chinastudent says:

    One must wonder if the sudden cascade of news items about quality issues in China owes itself to a concerted campaign by western spinmeisters. After all, the problems did not spring from some major changes by Chinese factories in 2007. Whatever was found must have been around for years, so how come so much ink all of a sudden? Could it be that the U.S. economy is showing its frayed seams, and there is a crying need for tactics to garner the votes of the former factory workers left behind in the wake of the Chinese economic expansion?

    I would not suggest that there are no problems in Chinese manufacturing. But when a company like Mattel, who have so much at stake, fails to show due diligence in monitoring the materials and processes used to make its bread and butter, why are there no questions raised about the competence of its own management? Is it more politically gainful to focus the blame on the Chinese factories? Like many other countries, China has both good and bad factories, good and bad management. GM had its Corvair, Ford had its Edsel, and U.S. drug companies come up every year with news of drugs with major risks, and cover-ups by their management. Caveat Emptor is good advice to all companies seeking to outsource its production to any factory, anywhere in the world. If you do not put the checks in place when contracting a third party to make your products, you reap what you sow. Lowest costs with bad management is a recipe for disaster.

    Ask yourself, when an American company puts out bad quality or endangers the public, it never becomes a blot on the bald eagle escutcheon, but when it happens in China, the whole country is smeared.

    Law Office of Todd L. Platek says:

    Very apt response by Chinastudent. No good reason exists why large American corporations cannot enforce their product-standard wills on Chinese factories; one bad reason exists – cutting costs. It is the responsibility of American importers to ensure (yes, ensure, not just keep fingers crossed) that the product they import and pass on to the American consumer fully complies with standard requirements. Why should we believe that Mattel or any of countless other US companies were bamboozled, hoodwinked, fooled, cheated, or otherwise deluded into thinking they were receiving product they claim to have been non-compliant with their allegedly-forestated requirements? Time for American companies to be accountable for each point of manufacturing of products which enter the stream of commerce bearing their names. Playing the odds that it is more cost-effective to deal with occasional embarrassments to the companies and personal injuries to consumers is unwise at this juncture. This is the advice I give my clients, corporations all. If however, they think that insurance and apologetic press releases will cure the problems, then let the American public be so forewarned.

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