Substandard product release: how did it become okay?

An exasperating trend of recalls in the consumer goods market, amid a faceless ignorance of purchasers’ feelings, proves that corporate self-awareness is at an all-time low

I’m on a plane from the UK to the US, tens of thousands of feet above the Atlantic, when a voice over the PA asks anyone with a Samsung Galaxy Note 7 to switch it off immediately and not use it at all during the flight. Having just recently returned my car to the dealership following a recall issued over safety concerns around the model’s airbags, it made me wonder: how did it become okay for substandard products to be released to the consumer? What’s worse than having to take time out to have the problem rectified, is the fact that there was no ‘apology for the inconvenience caused’. Instead, the dealer suggested that I be grateful that the fault was picked up.

More importantly, why do we allow this to keep happening to ourselves? Think about it. Samsung’s rival Apple is a prolific purveyor of new products. Any new device it releases is a high-end must-have that people queue all night to be among the first to own. However, even as we snap it up, we know that it’s not the finished article. We firmly expect that, within weeks of taking it out of the box, there will be some kind of ‘software update’ to fix a functionality problem that came with the original package.

Sure, I accept that software updates are an easy way to provide the customer with added value. But wrapped up within them are often a lot of bug fixes for flaws that were deemed okay to send to market. Across the entire consumer goods market lately, that problem of embedded flaws i.e. substandard consumer products, has reared its head a LOT.

Global shop of horrors
This is by no means an exhaustive list – but since the beginning of October, we have witnessed one of the most disturbing trends in living memory of consumer goods sometimes literally blowing up in people’s faces…

Bubble trouble Beverage maker AG Barr was forced to recall four batches of its Rubicon Sparkling Mango soft drink over fears that fermentation had occurred in the bottles, risking potential explosions.

Not what it creams That moreish treat the Oreo proved remarkably less-ish when it emerged that a milk allergen in the cream fillings of two flavours hadn’t been declared on the ingredients list. The snacks went back.

Burst reputation Toyota initiated a recall of 5.8 million cars fitted with explosion-prone airbags manufactured by the Takata Corporation – devices linked to the driver deaths of almost a dozen US citizens, along with injuries to scores of other people.

Internet of stings Chinese electronics giant Xiongmai raced against time to yank a host of webcams and digital recorders off the shelves, after their security flaws were implicated in widespread outages of several major websites and social networks.

Off the chain Popular US bicycle manufacturer Trek clawed back copies of its Farley model in the wake of concerns that its front-wheel fork was separating from the steering tube, providing riders with a whole range of possibilities for hospitalisation.

Shock to the system In related news, bike-equipment purveyor Fox Factory issued a recall for its Fox Float X2 rear-suspension shock absorbers – fitted to 16 different mountain-bike models – citing rupture-prone outer sleeves.

Burnt offerings
All those incidents followed 2016’s Grand High Consumer Goods Recall of Them All: the race to reclaim the Samsung Galaxy Note 7. What was meant to be the tech brand’s brave, new competitive gadget to mitigate the dominance of Apple ended up being a whopping misfire that left the company name frazzled – not to mention the scorch marks it seared on to the personal property of those unlucky enough to witness the phone’s frightening knack for spontaneous combustion. One even went into meltdown on a passenger jet – the sort of event that, in this day and age, the airlines industry needs like a hole in the head.

Not only was the faltering, fiery phone recalled – the entire product line was summarily cancelled, cutting off what had been intended as a vital, new commercial avenue before it had even begun to flourish. And all because of deeply embedded design flaws.

Just when it looked like it couldn’t get any worse for Samsung’s consumer goods, it emerged on 4 November that the firm is marching 2.8 million washing machines back to base, after the door on one model flew off and broke a customer’s jaw. A few days later, reports emerged of a Samsung user whose Galaxy J5 had become an indoor firework, casting doubt on a whole other phone model.

What on Earth is going on here?

Industry head-check
Given my more-than-passing familiarity with behavioural science, I think I’ve arrived at an explanation for the consumer goods industry’s state of affairs. Regular readers of the Inemmo blog will know that I work with the psychometric method Lumina as part of the leadership-development training I offer – and that this method has one or two things to say about competitive instincts.

In this blog from May, I contrasted management styles in the football world, following Leicester City’s dramatic victory in the 2015-16 Premiership slog. One chap who didn’t come out of that article very well was former Chelsea FC (now Man U) coach Jose Mourinho. Essentially, what I diagnosed in his psychological makeup was a leaning towards the darker side of the Outcome Focused personality trait. When pursued with an effective mentality, that trait can pay dividends, bringing laser-sharp concentration, purpose and logic into a leader’s arsenal (no football pun intended), energising the path towards an organisation’s objective – whether that’s a trophy… or a product launch.

Beset by conflicts largely of his own making (which, significantly, have not abated in his new role), our man Jose had, I concluded, trapped himself in the ineffective dead ends of the Outcome Focused trait – expressing argumentative, conflict-seeking tics, wrapped up in a goal-fixated, win-at-all-costs motivation. These are the drivers that would propel anyone about a thousand miles away from self-awareness and empathy. Which gets me thinking:

Have we got to a point where, in a goal-fixated rush to get new products into the market, entire industries have lost their self-awareness? And do all these recalls prove that speed has become the objective – and that too many products are being released prematurely?

No better than copycats?
It’s a particularly credible notion in the light of recent behaviour from manufacturers in China. In a move that would no doubt have sickened its inventor, the StikBox – a phone case that unfolds into a selfie stick, and earned more than $40,000 from a Kickstarter campaign – was ripped off by a Chinese firm that had studied online videos of the prototype.

This is a product that wasn’t even meant to have been released until the inventor had worked out how best to use the Kickstarter funds – and, in any case, he should have retained exclusivity over the device. And what was the turnaround time for the pirated version to emerge after the Kickstarter campaign launched? One week.

It’s the kind of move that could only have stemmed from a flagrant ignorance of other people’s feelings. Amid an overbearingly competitive mindset, the emotional interests of a skilled inventor were completely overlooked – as were those of consumers who may end up buying cheap-and-nasty versions of a product that was being developed with real care. This copycat malaise is seemingly endemic to China’s consumer goods trade, and has been strongly attributed to decades of rote learning in education.

But are the world’s allegedly responsible big brands really any better?

It’s no good mainstream firms criticising substandard or ripped-off consumer goods from China unless they can prove they can do better – and right now, it looks like they can’t. So how can they refine those competitive urges? By focusing on quality, and their customer relationships. And internally, the more self-awareness training their executives receive on an individual basis, the more likely that will show through in the goods they send to market.

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Image of burnt Samsung Galaxy Note 7 courtesy of Crushader, via Imgur (CC-BY)