Editor's Note: I love this recall

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Recently, I’ve been spending a good chunk of time consulting on the best ways to communicate to various stakeholders when facing a dairy product recall. Nobody wants to hear the word “recall,” much less deal with all of the headaches and potential loss of profit — sometimes even lives — associated with one.

But I’ve got to tell you, I’m loving the recent Chobani recall.

Why? Because it’s a textbook case of how such an event actually can strengthen a company’s relationship with its customers, suppliers and industry partners.

As dairy farm executives, you have all kinds of measures in place to help you discover the root of a potential problem on your farm, and you expect your cooperative or processing partner to do the same. But clean-in-place systems, thorough recordkeeping and all the other QA/QC trappings won’t help the farm or company that fails to communicate openly with its customers. And that’s where the Chobani team has excelled and provided us with a fantastic example to follow.

Take a look at the company’s website: See the careful, forthright way Chobani addresses what’s happened, offers updates and takes responsibility? Take a look at its blog: Titles like “Our Promise To You” do more for consumer confidence than any lawyer-approved, long-winded press release about recall particulars could. They set up new website links specifically to address the recall. They hired more customer service representatives. They used social media to communicate in real time just what the company knew as well as what it didn’t know. 

Certainly the imagery is not lost on us. The large, close-up photograph of Chobani founder and CEO Hamdi Ulukaya’s concerned, intense expression tells us he’s there, he’s working the problem and — most importantly — he cares about us. Another large, close-up graphic featuring the top of a lid of the company’s yogurt walks concerned consumers through exactly what the lot and plant identification codes mean vis a vis this recall. They said time and time again some version of the following: “Nothing is more important to us than responding to and connecting with our fans—including, and most importantly, those who have a less than perfect experience. Every day we set out to do that just a little bit better.”

But the company doesn’t stop there. Its next moves underscore its sincerity. Mid-October, Chobani announced a $1.5 million donation to Cornell University to fund a dairy quality research program, as well as the hire of a vice president for global quality, food safety and regulatory affairs. That’s putting your money where you customers’ mouths are — and all over a mold that doesn’t carry disease. I wonder what Chobani officials would have done in the face of a wave of sickness related to their product. I wonder if other yogurt manufacturers would have undertaken such a campaign to address what’s essentially a spoilage issue vs. a safety one.

In short, Chobani demonstrated a deep understanding of what human beings (and customers are human beings) need in order to feel safe: We need to feel as though information is being shared openly rather than being kept from us in order to serve some corporate agenda. Chobani also understands that “I don’t know if the recall will expand, but I’m working to figure that out and I will get back in touch as soon as possible” is 100 times more effective than “The great majority of the product is probably fine, so there’s likely no need to be concerned.” Ulukaya and his team understand the importance of transparent communications to reinforcing its integrity (and don’t miss Bob Milligan’s column on the importance of this trait in this newsletter). Because of that, Chobani never loses sight of the fact that customers are people first, and that any brand that wants to be truly embraced should embrace its own humanity.

As Socrates put it, “Be as you wish to seem.” But that’s increasingly difficult to pull off when you’ve got human egos involved, not to mention boards of directors, attorneys and other such trappings of modern business. Perhaps being the sole owner of this private company gave the Turkish-born Ulukaya some additional leeway. One could write an entire separate column on immigrant values and ethics as they relate to modern-day American corporate culture. 

Regardless of where you were born, certainly the great majority of dairy farm executives run their own show and, hence, have the leeway required to make more independent ethical decisions. How will you use this leeway?


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