As brand-damaging, consumer alienating PR disasters go, Samsung’s issue with its latest phone takes some beating.
When passengers on aircraft are being told to turn off their Samsung devices, that sends out a negative message about your products beyond even your own customers.
Even now you can bet business schools are preparing to use the inflammable Note 7 as a case study in crisis management.
But back in early September when reports first emerged that the new phablet was overheating or even exploding, Samsung received praise for its swift reaction.
By quickly announcing a global recall, and spending a hefty sum on supplying replacement devices, the company was seen to be putting the safety of consumers above financial concerns,
Over the last week, however, it has looked flat-footed in responding to new reports from the United States of customers with replacement phones seeing them overheat or catch fire.
‘weird burning sensation’
Thirteen-year-old Abby Zuis said she’d been told by her mum not to use her original Note 7 – but once she got a replacement she thought she was safe.
Then she says it started melting in her hand.
“I felt this really weird burning sensation on my thumb, pulled it up and I saw smoke and I threw it on the floor.”
Samsung had said in September that it had tracked down the original issue to a faulty batch of batteries from one supplier. So the fact that some replacement phones are also faulty leaves the company struggling to explain what has gone on,
In the UK, few people have got the Note 7 as it was due to go on sale the very day of the global recall. But as an early pre-order customer Michael Rock from Wakefield did get his at the end of August, to his great delight.
Now, however, he wishes he had never bothered.
He told me that returning the original device to Samsung had proved tricky – Royal Mail had refused to take it on the grounds that it was dangerous.
Now he’s heard the reports from the United States and is concerned about his replacement device – “I’ve got two young children, and I’m worried about charging it overnight at home.”
He contacted Samsung and was told they have no advice in the short term.
But the firm has told us the replacement devices are safe.
“Yes, the replacement Note 7 devices are safe to use. All new Note 7 devices feature a green battery icon to give customers reassurance that their device is safe to charge,” said a spokeswoman.
Meanwhile EE and Carphone Warehouse, which were due to start delivering Note 7 devices to customers by the end of the month, have said they know about the reports from the US and are in discussions with Samsung.
After such a repeatedly botched launch, it seems unlikely that the phone is going to be a best seller in the UK by Christmas – if it is here at all.
And the damage to Samsung isn’t restricted to the one model.
Its Galaxy phones have enjoyed a resurgence in the last year, and are probably the most profitable devices the company makes. But now they face a new competitor at the high end of the Android market in the form of the two Google Pixel smartphones unveiled last week.
Samsung is not the only company to have had issues with batteries.
Will Stewart from the Institute of Engineering and Technology says Lithium batteries can overheat because their energy content is high per unit weight.
“That is great in terms of keeping phones and other devices light. But modern devices use quite a lot of power and we like to recharge them quickly – so if something does go wrong the total energy released is quite high, hence the fires.”
Mr Stewart says such faults usually only affect a small proportion of phones.
The trouble is that even one phone which catches fire makes for startling pictures and a whole heap of consumer anxiety. Samsung may soon have to decide whether to cut its losses and abandon the Note 7 before it does more damage to its brand.