Dawson masterclass in damage limitation

By Stuart Smith, editor

stuart smithSorry is indeed the hardest word, and when it comes from the managing director of Mars UK, uttering it must feel like eating glass. Let's face it: Masterfoods, of which Mars is a part, may be the academy that has produced such summa cum laude marketing graduates as Allan Leighton and Angus Porter. But a warm, friendly atmosphere is not on the prospectus; and humility nowhere appears in the syllabus. So it's greatly surprising to find Fiona Dawson, the md in question, eating humble pie in public over the abstruse subject of rennet - an animal enzyme that has found its way into a slew of Mars' best known products: Snickers, Maltesers, Minstrels, Galaxy and, of course, the eponymous Bar.

The crisis is entirely Mars' own fault, perhaps underlining its insulated decision-making process. For whatever reason, cost and convenience being the most obvious suspects, it decided on May 1 to introduce the animal-sourced coagulant to the whey that is a constituent part of all milk chocolate manufacture. The rennet replaced a vegetarian-friendly version of the same thing.

Whether Mars imagined that vegetarians might not notice, care or, more cynically, not count for much among the body of their consumers, does not now matter. Because it was clearly wrong: more than 6,000 people complained, and 40 MPs signed a petition protesting over the move.

What's interesting, however, is not that Mars made a mistake, but the lightning speed and depth of its reaction in redeeming itself. It has spent millions of pounds on an advertising campaign that makes an unqualified apology, promises to rectify the error and asserts, unequivocally, that "the consumer is our boss". Most remarkable of all, it has led from the front, rather than hide behind a wall of PR flunkeys. Dawson herself has spearheaded the campaign; and also made herself readily available for interview. The personal email address - fionadawson@mars.co.uk - is a nice touch which ought to win her, and Mars, some friends.

Should we regard Mars' gesture as a sign of weakness, or of strength? Small changes in a brand's formulation can have devastating consequences for sales. Witness New Coke all those years ago, or the discovery of minute particles of benzene that destroyed Perrier's primacy as a mineral water brand. So Mars had good reason to be fearful once it discerned a public reaction. Though no health scare was implied, it could easily have been convicted of arrogance and insensitivity towards consumers. But by going the extra mile, it may well have converted a potential disaster into a bit of a PR triumph (a draw is usually the best that can be hoped for in these matters). Mars is understood to be in negotiation with the Vegetarian Society about adopting its "Vegetarian Society approved" logo. If the talks succeed, it will have stolen a march on all its competitors by gaining something that confers a wholesome aura - invaluable when your sector has been so roughed up by the regulators.

Most of all, Mars' response shows a deftness of touch when compared with its competitors - also reflected in its new product record. You can't imagine Nestlé managing this kind of crisis operation. As for Cadbury, the salmonella crisis last year speaks for itself (though, admittedly, the stakes would have been higher if it had avowed responsibility with a fulsome mea culpa).

Stuart Smith, editor

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