Fitbit’s recall is not just a product issue, it is a messaging failure

By James Robinson , written on March 13, 2014

From The News Desk

As Pando’s Tim Worstall wrote this morning, Fitbit finds itself in a mess around its Fitbit Force health-monitoring wristband. As cases mounted of users developing rashes and dermatitis from wearing the device the company first decided to publicly offer refunds in February. Today the other shoe dropped when the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission (USCPSC) released an official voluntary recall notice.

That the recall is voluntary is customary in cases, like Fitbit's, when a company agrees to comply with the USCPSC and offer “corrective action,” a commission spokesperson says. The notice recommends that all Fitbit Force users, whether they’re sporting rashes or not, take advantage of the refund option although it is not mandatory to turn the device in.

The USCPSC release includes some interesting data on the scope of the problem. All told, 9,900 people reported to Fitbit that the Force had caused them skin irritation, 250 of which included reports of blistering. Blistering. From a glorified pedometer. It's not far off from a pharmaceutical that solves a relatively benign medical condition, but lists death as a possible side effect.

For the past few weeks, Fitbit’s response has been to try to marginalize this problem. In a statement it released Thursday afternoon, the company said, “the reactions reported by a small percentage of Force users were likely the result of allergic contact dermatitis” – a comment equivalent to admitting a problem in one breath while also saying it is no big deal.

“Some users may be reacting to nickel in the stainless steel used in the device, even though the surgical grade material meets the most stringent regulatory standards,” the statement continues. Again, insisting that something shouldn’t have happened unfortunately can’t cover up for the fact that it actually did.

Fitbit has seemed perpetually offkey in communicating to the public. “While only 1.7% of Force users have reported any type of skin irritation, we care about every one of our customers,” CEO James Park said in the company's February 20 statement.

Same tone, different day.

For context as to the magnitude of this problem, consider that Fitbit owns three-quarters of the activity tracker market in America. While 1.7 percent of anything seems like a trifling amount, when that portion of your customer base equates to 10,000 people, that’s a small town of people who found wearing your product detrimental to their health. The headline should just be “sorry,” not “sorry… but.”

Granted, this isn’t Toyota recalling 9 million cars. No one died, got badly injured, or experienced anything that some over the counter ointment couldn’t clear up. But surely there is a better and more gracious way to respond. Fitbit’s product caused a physical reaction from 10,000 people. You’d expect a market leader to offer something more.

Fitbit wouldn’t be the first activity-tracking wristband to deal with a recall. Jawbone had to issue a recall of its Up bands at the end of 2011 after facing repeat cases where its batteries stopped charging. After an initial PR backlash, the company was widely credited for its aggressive refund strategy.

A source from a prominent Fitbit competitor speaking on background conceded that, in a growing market sector, no one wins from Fitbit’s woes. In a developing space, you needed people to feel safe, this person says. Fitbit’s fall will cause new consumers to look at all new activity trackers sideways, but the company had done the right thing in agreeing to the recall.

The bigger picture problem for Fitbit here is that the corporate brand is one and the same as products it sells. CEO James Park is notoriously press shy.  In one of few glimpses behind the company curtain he’s given, he admitted at this year's Startup Grind that at a recent SXSW Nike spent more on a single event focused around its activity tracker than Fitbit had spent on marketing in the past two years.

Fitbit was the first in the space, developed a good product, and took the path of least resistance to dominance by focusing on major national retail details and clear in-store presence to explain its wristbands. The company is popular, having sold one million Fitbit Forces in four months. But, in the grand scheme of things,  it has negligible brand recognition.

By ignoring the brand messaging component of this fiasco, Fitbit has painted itself into an unenviable corner. Millions of people are now hearing about Fitbit for the first time as something that causes a rash, making it seem as savory as swimming in a dirty river. The company then responded to its first real public relations crisis by trying to downplay its mistake and releasing robotic, canned statements – its media relations apparatus being a form on its website. It's enough to make one ask  whether Fitbit's problem is more that it doesn't know how to do public relations, rather than that it doesn’t want to do public relations.

As the the news cycle of this own product failure rolls on, Fitbit needs to learn that these are not the times to strike bum notes.

[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]