In 1980, Procter & Gamble launched a super-absorbent tampon called Rely. However, the super-absorbency of the product was a result of a synthetic substance called carboxymethyl cellulose, which would sometimes leave a synthetic residue inside a woman’s body after the tampon had been removed.
‘From the moment super-absorbent tampons hit the market there were published accounts of vaginal ulcerations, lesions, and lacerations,’ writes Laurie Garrett in her 1994 book,
However, things became even more worrying later in the year with a sudden increase in cases of Toxic Shock syndrome in the state of Wisconsin.
Almost all the cases were menstruating females. Following further research by health authorities it emerged that most victims had been using the Rely tampon.
This was clearly very bad news, not only for the victims, but also for Procter & Gamble, the company which had virtually started the tampon category in 1936. Furthermore, Rely had been one of the most expensive products ever to develop, with more than 20 years of research and marketing efforts behind it.
From the start of the crisis, Procter & Gamble acted defensively. When the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta started to investigate the link between Rely and toxic shock syndrome, Procter & Gamble began their own investigation which (surprise surprise) found no link. When the CDC published their findings, the link was backed up with comprehensive figures.
But Procter & Gamble dismissed this research as ‘insufficient data in the hands of a bureaucracy.’ However, by this time the company had started to realize it was fighting a losing battle and began to co-operate and look for a compromise solution. Procter & Gamble suggested a warning label be added to the product. But when the results of the CDC study were confirmed by an independent research firm, Procter & Gamble had little choice but to suspend sales of the product.
The withdrawal of Rely from the market was estimated to cost US $75 million. However, although Procter & Gamble initially made matters worse by denying responsibility, the company was now embarked on a damage limitation exercise.
It worked jointly with the CDC to draft a consent agreement. The CDC allowed Procter & Gamble to deny any product defect or violation of federal law. In return Procter & Gamble promised to buy back any unused product and offered its scientific expertise to research the problem. The company also mounted a large-scale educational campaign.
In an article for the Canadian Journal of Communication, Drexel University’s Priscilla Murphy explored Procter & Gamble’s handling of the Rely tampon incident in relation to ‘games theory’. She argued that by the end, Procter & Gamble’s game plan had improved greatly:
The latter stages of Procter & Gamble’s strategy exemplify a wholly different approach to conflict. What had begun as a classic escalation game became a bargaining venture in which everyone’s desires were examined and coordinated so that each player could live with the agreement. When we are talking about bargaining games we are really looking at the ways in which both sides in a conflict gradually come to agree on a single version of events, a single perspective. What resulted was a stable equilibrium point that, though not ideal, represented the best outcome for each side given the pressures from the other side.
So although the incidents of toxic shock syndrome spelt the end of the Rely brand, Procter & Gamble itself suffered small lasting damage and continues to produce some of the world’s most popular tampon products.
Lessons from Rey
Co-operate don’t aggravate. If Procter & Gamble had co-operated with the health authorities from the start it would have been able to limit the negative media coverage.
Kill the brand, save the company. For companies with numerous brands it is often better to admit defeat early on and terminate a brand for the sake of the overall reputation of the company.