BOSTON Bausch & Lomb doesn't have much time to act if it is going to save its ReNu brand, some observers said Thursday.
In a conference call on Wednesday with analysts, CEO Ron Zarrella said he was considering a marketing campaign to restore confidence in the brand after it was linked to a serious infection-causing fungus. But some observers warned that B&L has to speak loudly, clearly and most of all, quickly, if such a move is to succeed.
The Rochester, N.Y.-based company did not return calls. Interpublic Group's Gotham in New York has crafted most mainstream ad efforts for B&L in recent years. The company spent $35 million last year in measured media, including slightly less than $15 million on ReNu, per Nielsen Monitor-Plus.
"They have to be open and up front and not use marketing-speak," said Susan Palombo, director of brand strategy at Landor Associates, New York. "You have to say what your action plan is and quickly give people a comfort level that you are taking the right steps."
On Monday, the Centers for Disease Control said it was investigating 109 reports of fungal keratitis (a fungus that can cause blindness), and that 30 of those cases had been linked to B&L's contact lens cleaner ReNu with MoistureLoc.
The next day, as retailers started pulling the product from shelves, B&L said it would not recall the cleaner but would stop shipping it to stores. So far Sears, CVS, Wal-Mart, Rite-Aid and all Albertson's-owned chains, including Jewel-Osco and Shaw's, have pulled this type of ReNu from shelves. Walgreens has gone one step further and pulled all ReNu products.
One problem facing B&L is that so far investigators have not been able to identify what, if any, connection there is between the cleaner and the fungus. The company may actually be suffering from the success of its own branding. According to the CDC, of the 30 patients on whom complete data was available, 28 were soft-contact users, and all 26 patients who remembered the brand of cleaning solution they had used before the infection said it was ReNu.
While the CDC report indicates a product-related problem, the low number of cases makes it difficult to determine if this is an outbreak or just a result of better screening for the fungus. In a statement on the agency's Web site, the CDC said the infection occurred "rarely" with contact lens use.
Palombo said that overall brand success could aid B&L's efforts to come back from this product setback.
"When you have a strong brand, as B&L does, then the consumers trust it and are willing to give you a little benefit of the doubt," she said.
Pointing to similar crises with other brands like Tylenol and Pepsi, she said, "It's not what you would wish for, but how you respond to a crisis can really let you build trust with the consumer."
In February, similar infections linked to MoistureLoc, which is produced by B&L's factories in Italy and China, were reported in Singapore and sales were suspended there and in Hong Kong. But no problems have been reported with the cleaner in Europe.