Nothing resonates so emotionally with a mother as a threat to her baby. Food safety and quality concerns with infant foods have huge impact and, these days, any issue is quickly picked up and broadcast (often in simplified or exaggerated forms) over social media. Rumours spread and reputations sink. In 2008, a Melamine contamination of Sanlu brand baby formulas in China had a major impact on mothers’ perceptions of product quality especially for local brands. As I write, another infant milk contamination issue has hit Asia, this time traced to problems with powder produced by New Zealand dairy giant Fonterra. Coincidentally, AsiaEmotion has been evaluating emotional reaction to Growing-Up milk advertising in Asia, and the results have some clear lessons for those trying to rebuild confidence in the sector. (AsiaEmotion is a large scale, Pan-Asian exploration of Asian consumers emotional response to advertising, carried out by Gordon & McCallum and Cimigo ulitlising nViso’s 3D Facial Imaging technology to directly measure emotions evoked. More details can be found in earlier articles on this site, or at www.asiaemotion.com).
(Growing-Up Milk Ad: Experts give Chinese Mums the facts about quality – but puts them to sleep?)
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While the direct health consequences of the current problem seem to likely be limited, the fact that New Zealand has a “clean green” image in Asia and that it supplies milk powder both for its own brands and for other manufacturers means that the impact on reputation and trust may yet affect the whole category. What should a brand owner do under these circumstances? Clearly the first steps, learnt over many years and numerous PR disasters, are apology and transparency. Fonterra’s CEO is in China right now, doing just that. But as the public health problem fades, the issues for brands will become marketing ones: rebuilding trust and reinforcing or reigniting perceptions of quality.
I’m going to focus on a couple of Growing-Up Milk ads from China.One is for a local brand Fei He, seemingly intended to prove it is substantive, concerned with quality, and essentially as good as “international brands” in all important respects. The other is for Dumex and is aimed at conveying its international status, reputation, and “gold standard” brand heritage. (To see the ads, and the emotive response to them, you can click on Feihe and Dumex Gold). These commercials can be seen as a response to the earlier Melamine scandal, in that the brand owners clearly see Chinese mothers as needing reassurance about quality and reputation. Both however, appear to have failed to engage consumers, particularly in the key message sequences. In the current context this matters – over coming months brands are going to have to convey some fairly clear messages about brand quality and reputation. So what lessons do these ads give us.