Sigg has BPA: Reputation in Peril

Sigg Switzerland sells variety of drinking bottles in both sport and children’s models. Most are aluminum with an epoxy liner. Many people buy drinking bottles as alternatives to bottled water for environmental and health concerns. Bottle water is wasteful because of the plastic and is no safer than tap water, in most places. Moreover, there is a concern that chemicals, especially BPA (bisphenol-A) can leach from the plastic into the water. Sigg sales had increases of 250% between 2006 and 2007 was concern over BPA increased. Chemical companies still dispute the dangers of BPA but that is another issue. As early as 2008, there were questions about BPA in the epoxy liners of Sigg bottles. In September of 2009, the company officially acknowledged older liners did contain BPA but denied the BPA could leach into water. This “seemed” to be reversal by Sigg from earlier denials about BPA. However, Sigg maintains the denials were about leaching and that the bottles were always safe. Many in the online community have vocally disagreed

Here is part of the explanation of the BPA issue offered by Sigg:

“1) What is Bisphenol A (BPA) and how is it generally used? Bisphenol A (BPA) is a chemical building block that is used primarily to make polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins. Cured epoxy resins are inert materials and have been used as protective liners in metal containers for more than 40 years to maintain the quality of foods and beverages. They have achieved wide acceptance for use as protective coatings because of their combination of toughness, adhesion, formability and chemical resistance. BPA is still used today in the cans of your favorite Cola for example. 2) Did SIGG use BPA in its bottles? Yes. Prior to August 2008, SIGG utilized a water-based epoxy liner that contained a trace amount of BPA. These bottles were thoroughly and regularly tested in the U.S. and Switzerland and all tests revealed absolutely no migration or leaching of BPA or any other substance from the former protective liner. Click here to view tests. 3) Are you still using the water-based, epoxy resin liner in any of your bottles? No. We no longer use this liner at all. Today and since August 2008, we make all of our SIGG bottles with a powder-based, co-polyester liner that we call the EcoCare liner. BPA is not one of the ingredients in the formula of this liner. 4) Are older SIGG bottles that contain BPA safe? Yes. U.S. and worldwide regulatory bodies continue to deem the component safe and independent research has shown that these bottles do not leach. We stand behind the quality and safety of all our SIGG bottles including those with our former liner. 5) How do I know which liner is in my SIGG bottle? If you purchased your SIGG before August 2008, you very likely have the water-based, epoxy resin liner. Consumers can determine their liner type with a quick visual inspection. The EcoCare liner has a dull, pale yellow appearance while the former liner has a shiny copper bronze appearance. Click here for photos.”

The power of online communication is a part of this story. Customers reacted negatively to Sigg’s initial response. They sent e-mails to Sigg, wrote blogs, and sent Tweets on the issue. The customer reflect the perceptual nature of risk. The BPA may not leach from the epoxy but many customers bought Sigg bottles because they wanted to avoid any contact with BPA for themselves or their children using the products. If BPA is there, people can perceive it as a threat and as undesirable.

Eventually the CEO of Sigg issues this “apology”:

“Dear SIGG Customer, (STAMFORD CT) – Last month, I wrote a letter to try and provide you with as much factual and historical information as I could in regards to the evolution of the SIGG bottle liner. I also suggested that people could email me if they had any questions and comments. After reading and responding to hundreds of emails and viewing nearly as many blog & Twitter posts, I realize that my first letter may have missed the mark. What I should have said simply and loudly to all of our loyal SIGG fans is: I am sorry that we did not make our communications on the original SIGG liner more clear from the very beginning. I have learned much over the past 2 weeks. I learned that many of you purchased SIGG bottles – not just because they were free from leaching and safe – but because you believed that SIGGs contained no BPA. I learned that, although SIGG never marketed the former liner as “BPA Free” we should have done a better job of both clearly communicating about our liner as well as policing others who may have misunderstood the SIGG message. For over 100 years, SIGG has earned a reputation for quality products and service – and we do not take that for granted. From the day we made our announcement last month, we made a commitment consistent with SIGG values that we would offer anyone who is concerned about BPA an opportunity to swap their old SIGGs for new SIGGs with the new EcoCare liner. Today, I am announcing that this voluntary Exchange Program will be in place until October 31, 2009 to ensure that our customers have ample time to send their former liner bottles back to us should they choose to do so. Once again, I truly apologize for the lack of clarity in our previous communications. All of us at SIGG hope that we will have an opportunity to regain your confidence and trust. Sincerely, Steve Wasik CEO, SIGG Switzerland”

Sigg has now taken some remedial action to allay fears over BPA in its older products. Again, note how the response recognizes online communication:

“Subject: Our Response to the BPA Issue Date: October 1, 2009 Back in April 2008, the popular blog Tree Hugger ran a story, “Are SIGG Aluminum Bottles BPA Free?” The story ended with: “Conclusion: We are not sure if the lining of SIGG bottles is made with BPA or not, but we like the results of the testing, which is what really matters.” The testing of course showed that SIGG bottles did not leach any chemicals, which we too thought, “is what really matters.” Based on the mail we received this past month, some people disagreed. At the same time, we learned that some people in North America purchased SIGG bottles – not just because they were Swiss-made, beautifully designed and free from leaching – but because they thought SIGGs contained no BPA. We learned that we could have done a better job of more clearly communicating about our liners. We are very sorry for any confusion. To ensure that our North American customers remain completely satisfied with SIGG, we have offered those concerned with our old liner an opportunity to swap their old SIGGs for new SIGGs with the new EcoCare liner. This voluntary exchange program began in August and will run for nearly 3 months expiring on Oct 31, 2009. For more details please see:”

Decades ago, Kenneth Boulding speculated that reputations (he called them images) were fairly stable. He tough smashing a reputation was like smashing an atom—only a direct shot would cause turee harm while glancing shots would simply bounce away. So is the Sigg BPA revelation one of Boulding’s atom smashing reputation strikes? Only time will tell.

Questions to Consider

1. What did the Sigg CEO apologize for and how effective is the response? Be sure to justify your rating of the apology’s effectiveness.

2. Does it matter to the communication efforts if the fear over BPA in the epoxy is irrational? Why or why not?

3. How might insights from risk communication be useful in this situation?

4. What does the CEO’s apology say about Sigg’s online monitoring of its reputation?

5. Why is the composition of the customer base (their values and lifestyles) so critical in this case?

6. How did the online environment help to drive this case? How did Sigg use it in their response?

7. Start from the first blog questioning, what communication recommendations for the BPA in Sigg bottles would you  offer to the CEO?


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