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Stop lying to your customers

“To remain competitive, businesses require access to capital and the STRATEGIC ADVICE to use it wisely. So, who are they going to turn to?”

Merrill Lynch advertisment, The Economist, September 20th, 2008

“Quality and safety are the foundations of social harmony.”

Posters for China’s Sanlu Group, quoted in The Economist, September 20th, 2008

I came across these two statements last week, and became very angry.

Let’s start with Merrill Lynch. The excerpt quoted above was from a full-page advert placed in The Economist in a rather fateful week: the week that the world economy went into free fall (and it’s still falling).

If you turned the page of that magazine, you saw a leader titled “What next?”, stating that the world’s greatest finance houses have “splintered into matchwood.” Merrill Lynch was one of them. It was bought by Bank of America in a distress sale for half its value of a year earlier. Why? Because Merrill was one of those at the forefront of dabbling with toxic debts and repackaging them.

Now, would anyone in their right mind be seeking STRATEGIC ADVICE from these people, or thinking that they might advise anyone on how TO USE CAPITAL WISELY, as the Merrill ad recommends? Give me a break! I can understand that the advertisement may have been placed and paid for some time before the meltdown, but the proximity was utterly jarring.

Now let’s go across the globe to China. What is the Sanlu Group? Why, just the company at the heart of the recent milk powder scandal. Much of China’s dairy industry has been engulfed by this scandal, and many countries have cancelled their orders. China’s reputation for quality and safety has taken another knock, coming soon after the unsafe toys fiasco.

More importantly, at least four infants have been killed by the tainted powder, and many thousands have fallen ill. What was happening here was apparently very simple: the middlemen who collect milk in China were adding water to it to increase its volume. To disguise this practice, they would add melamine, a toxic chemical, to fool inspectors about the milk’s protein content. Sanlu’s quality processes were unable to detect this problem.

So, QUALITY and SAFETY, eh? Why do companies use words that they do not mean in the slightest? We are the same in Kenya: there is a new corporate disease afoot here, of using lofty words and noble-sounding advertising blurb to sell our products. Most of it is freshly ejected manure.

Cheating on the product is rife here, just as it seems to be in China. We will also undoubtedly have our own scandals in many industries, before we do anything about it. China at least did what we may never do: milk dealers have been arrested, as has the boss of Sanlu. The town mayor has been dismissed, even though his role was probably indirect.

Companies must resist the temptation to be insincere. There is no substitute for honesty in dealings with customers. Don’t make promises you can’t possibly keep – they will damage your brand irrevocably. Shy away from the flowery ad-speak; it often masks an ugly, cheating, grasping corporation.

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