Mattel’s Missed Opportunity

September 24th, 2007

The most recent news on the Mattel toy recall story is the company’s apology to China.



Clearly Mattel and the entire toy industry have serious challenges right now, but this post is not about China, or manufacturing or lead paint: it’s about how puzzled I am that Mattel – the world’s biggest and perhaps most repected toy company – would permit others to control the story, particularly when the web makes it so easy to get a message out quickly, clearly, repeatedly and directly. Let’s look at just the last several days.

On Friday, September 21, Thomas Debrowski, Mattel’s head of operations, appeared on camera in China to personally apologize for its massive recall of Chinese-made toys.  Mattel made the decision to do this because most of the items were defective due to a (Mattel) design flaw and not because of a (Chinese) manufacturing problem. Several media outlets interpreted this move as Mattel’s attempt to protect its own fortunes, with ABC saying that the company was trying to patch up its relationship with a country that “makes most of its toys and fattens its profit” and the Washington Post pointing out that the toymaker “receives 65 percent of its toys from China and has made significant financial investments in the Asian country.” These reports prompted Mattel to react with a formal statement defending the apology and attempting to point out that it was very similar, if not the same, to the apologies that the company had offered in several other markets. Ugh.

So I went to mattel.com fully expecting the entire home page to be taken over by the company’s messaging and statements of caring and action about this situation. I assumed I would see perhaps one-click access to a moment-by-moment updated list of recalled toys, a video statement from the Chairman, further explanation of the company’s apology to the Chinese, an invitation to call a 24/7-manned 800# hotline for further information and messages to key stakeholders such as parents and stockholders. Maybe a corporate blog. I can’t overestimate how much I just assumed about what’d I’d find at their site. When I stopped for a moment to think about why, I realized, actually, that I had such positive feelings/memories about the company that I just figured they’d “do the right thing”:  Mattel itself is the entity that creating such high expectation on my part.

Here is a snapshot of Mattel’s home page as of Monday, September 24 at:

stephanie_fierman_mattel-home-page.jpg

The main section of the well is unchanged (“The World’s Premier Toy Brands Today and Tomorrow”). Two smaller call-outs link to a recall list last updated September 4, nearly three weeks ago, and the only statement from the Chairman accessible from the home page is Mr. Eckert’s Wall Street Journal editorial dated September 11, more than two weeks ago. In what I consider to be a particularly painful irony, the third of the three call-outs notes that Mattel has been named one of the 100 best corporate citizens of 2007 by Corporate Responsibility Officer magazine.

The first item in a “Mattel in the News” section (IS there any other news?) refers to a new Barbie full-length DVD musical and kick-off event. [NOTE: as an aside, it is possible that Mattel is inadvertently damaging the potential of this new product by having it on the home page at a time when visitors are least likely to want to be receptive to Mattel marketing messages.

There’s no landing page solely devoted to what’s happening and what people care about right now.  Even the information in the site isn’t completely updated.  Forget about the video blogs I’d have all over the web updated multiple times/day, the street teams I might consider fanning out all over the US to talk to real citizens, the use of Youtube to get your position out – in other words, the extensive list of PR options Mattel management deserves and should have in front of them at this moment…  They’re not even using the most valuable piece of real estate in the universe right now, mattel.com, to take charge.

Having made these decisions before, I do not underestimate their difficulty, or the pain this has caused Mattel.  And being an honorable company may just make it worse.  You assume that the public sees and understands much more than they do:  that they will rationally assess an incident in the context of your track record of excellence.
 
If this was ever true, the Internet has forever changed the picture.


It’s not about truth on the Web:  it’s about sensationalism.  The Google algorithm actually rewards popularity – the bigger the fire, the better.   So where companies may have believed that the high road meant staying silent, sticking to their knitting and just fixing the problem… that is no longer an option.

Whoever steps into the void is the party that will be heard, so a premier company like Mattel needs to re-program itself to understand that the “high road” now means delivering authentic 24-hour information online – in good times and bad. 

Manage the story, Mattel: don’t let the story manage you.

 

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