Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Public Relations Failure Modes

I hope everyone who rides seriously has read the VeloNews report of a failed Mavic R-SYS front wheel by now. It's getting some blogosphere traction, and with good reason -- an exploding front wheel that allows your fork to drop on your front tire at full speed isn't exactly confidence-inspiring. To paraphrase an engineer-biker pal, you don't mess around with the parts that keep your teeth off the pavement.

Now I have a hard time slamming Mavic with all the blame here. The rider in question was a self-professed 190-pounder. Sure, Mavic didn't put a rider weight limit on the wheel in question, and 190 isn't exactly tubby by normal American guy standards, but dude, c'mon. If I took some reading material into the bathroom, we'd be able to wrestle in the same weight class when I came out. We're the guys that rim manufacturers are thinking of when they Swiss-cheese their hoops with 32 (or even -- dare I say it? -- 36) holes. Are you
really getting that much of an edge pushing into a corner on a glued-together pile of carbon splinters most likely designed for somebody who weighs as much as my right leg (which is the one with the titanium upgrade)? Find a good wheelbuilder, buy some nice Ultegra hubs, have them laced to a couple Mavic Open Pros with a thick handful of shiny steel butted spokes, and go ride. If you get dropped, pedal faster.

Where I do blame Mavic is in the cleanup. For a company with so many marketers, their public relations are imploding like... well, an R-SYS wheel under my fat arse. Let's review: The wheels were released to the public once. They started failing. Mavic did a recall and redesigned the wheels. Then this issue popped up. And, instead of saying, "Oops, we did it again," Mavic is backpedaling like a brakeless fixie rider in traffic. The response seems to be, "Wait, you put these wheels on a bicycle and rode it? Well, there's your problem right there."

For a case study in how to do this right, think back to the Kryptonite Lock Debacle of a few years ago. Don't remember the Kryptonite Lock Debacle?
That's why it's an example of PR done well. Here's a review: Someone figured out that you could jimmy the cylindrical lock core of a Kryptonite by jamming the end of a Bic pen into it and wiggling. That somebody took a video of himself doing just that, dropped the video into the magic tubes of the Interwebs, and it went absolutely viral among bike nerds. People were freaking out. I immediately went to the hardware store, bought a chunk of the heaviest chain they had, dropped that into a piece of old innertube, added a flat-keyed disc padlock, and consigned my Krypto to paperweight status.

So what did Kryptonite do? Add some fine print to the packaging that said, "Not for use around writing utensils"? Nope. They said, "Our brand identity is unbreakable locks. We either fix this or we die." And they immediately issued a recall of
all the affected locks -- basically everything they'd sold since the dawn of time. My paperweight U was a good ten years old at that point, its receipt long gone, and when I sent it in, they sent me a brand-spankin' new one with an un-Bic-pickable flat key in a matter of days. I'm still using that lock today, I'll keep using it, and when I stop using it, I'll probably replace it with another Kryptonite. Brand identity saved, customer loyalty preserved. It probably cost a LOT, but what's a reputation worth?

So, Mavic: Your reputation is dependable wheels, and most of your hoops live up to that. You stepped out too far on the bleeding edge with the R-SYS, and the crunch of carbon spokes was the sound of that edge giving way. Take a couple steps back, stop blaming your customers, fix this the right way, and save yourselves. You don't want to be the Lambert/Viscount Death Fork of the 21st century.


Karen R said...

Karen from Kryptonite here. A huge thanks for your vote of confidence. Our fix of our own crisis several years ago DID cost us a lot of money, but the lessons learned from how to handle such a situation were invaluable. We're happy we can count you among the good people who stuck with us. Hope Mavic learns before having to spend as much money as we did.

John Speare said...

Jason: great post. I remember the Kryptonite episode well. And it's a pretty good comparison to the Mavic wheel and PR failure. For Mavic to turn around now and do a Kryptonite move, after their weak response in Velonews, seems very improbable.
One difference though is that the product failure for Kryptonite was ubiquitous. ALL locks failed.
With Mavic, this is the only failure that we know of. Of course, the stakes are much higher for failure, so even the hint of some small percentage of random failure will have many class-action, personal-injury attorneys licking their chops.
That said, it may be premature, after one failure, albeit high profile, to recall the entire stock. Perhaps the right thing for them to do is define some user boundaries around weight: these are racing wheels and should be used by professional (starving 165 lbers at most) racers only. Then again, maybe it's too late for that, legally -- if a 200 lb'er breaks his face after buying the wheels and not hearing about the fat-guy recall, who pays for the face transplant?
I'd hate to be a Mavic lawyer or PR person right now.

Anonymous said...

Kryptonite replaced my lock too, and I certainly have to respect them for doing the right thing, instead of perhaps suing the ballpoint pen industry for aiding criminals. Reminds me of the poisoned Tylenol episode back in the 80's(?).

Mavic certainly must have a lot of lab and field tests for these wheels to show some level of reliability, but they must also recognize that customers do things to products that the manufacturer never expects. (I speak from some experience as an engineer at a place that designs earthmoving equipment)

Mavic couldn't have sold that many sets of these wheels. They ought to just bite the bullet and offer refunds or replacements. It's gotta be cheaper than fighting 1000 nuisance lawsuits or losing a couple of big suits.

Steve K.

Bike Locks said...

When you have such a good product, it is hard to keep up with the standard that you have constantly put out. The idea is to make sure every product that you sell is up to standards, and that you always give the customer warning that there is honestly no guarantee that a simple lock can protect your bike from every thief. It is just the truth, and while most people know it, it may be important to start telling them that.

Alicia Austin said...

Fantastic post Jason! I thoroughly enjoyed reading it! That Kryptonite story is a great example. I work for a PR company in Charlestown MA, and we've found that it always best to take the hit up front to build your brand.