CHICAGO (Reuters) - Procter & Gamble's (PG.N) biggest bet on a new diaper in 25 years has run afoul of some parents who say their babies suffered rashes and burns after using them.
And while the company insists its new product launch is off to a blockbuster start, it is also the target of hundreds of public complaints that pose a threat to an $8 billion brand built on trust.
Cathy Valentine, for one, says she may never buy a P&G product ever again.
Her four-month old daughter had been in Pampers Swaddlers diapers since the day she was born. Earlier this month the Michigan mom started to use a box of the newest P&G diapers with "Dry Max" technology that is touted as thinner and more absorbent. Soon, her daughter's skin in the diaper area turned pink. By the next day, blisters had formed.
Nothing in baby Alexis's routine had changed except that the family started using the new Pampers Swaddlers, Valentine said. A pediatrician diagnosed it as a chemical burn and one week later the area was still bleeding when touched, she said.
Valentine's story of rashes and burns after using the new Pampers is one of several quickly making the rounds on social networking sites such as Facebook, where a group calling on the company to reinstate the old diapers had grown to 1,053 members as of Monday.
The world's largest marketer has tried to tap into positive viral buzz online, including rave reviews from bloggers provided with free samples of the new diapers. Nearly 225,469 people are part of a Pampers' Facebook "fan" group, but even there, some parents voice opposition to the new products.
"P&G's really got their hands full on this one," said Tim Calkins, clinical professor of marketing at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management in Evanston, Ill. "If a product like this develops a negative reputation it can really become a big issue."
P&G began introducing the new diapers with "Dry Max" during the first half of 2009, gradually replacing older versions of Pampers Swaddlers and Cruisers. As of last month, only the new version is available to shoppers.
The diapers have been heavily promoted by P&G, including giveaways tied to the Winter Olympics. Chairman and Chief Executive Bob McDonald has called the new diapers Pampers "biggest breakthrough" in at least 25 years.
Pampers tested the products on more than 20,000 babies before they were launched, with "more than 300,000 diaper changes as part of these studies that really confirmed that it's safe," said Bryan McCleary, a spokesman for P&G's baby care division.
"There's absolutely nothing in our testing that would say that there should be any difference between previous Pampers products and this Pampers product," he said in response to questions posed by Reuters. He added that if a complaint was serious, it would be reviewed by the company's health and safety group.
P&G has seen "great" consumer demand for the new diapers and feels they are "off to a blockbuster start," he added. Parenting magazine, among others, gave the new diapers a ringing endorsement.
But dozens of parents on Pampers websites, forums such as Facebook and online retailers including Amazon.com Inc (AMZN.O) and Diapers.com, say that even though the diapers are supposed to be more absorbent, they leak more and feel stiff.
And while P&G says it is not receiving an unusual amount of complaints given the introduction of a new product, the negative discussion can take on a life of its own.
"Reality and perception are two different things and if people think the new diaper has a problem, well, then, that becomes a big issue," said Calkins. "The world of social media gives consumers the ability to find each other and to really champion these causes."
Some of the consumer anger stems from surprise over P&G's formulaic response to complaints. Many parents learn to trust the brand just after their babies are born, as more than 95 percent of U.S. hospitals swaddle newborns in Pampers.
The company also reaches out to expectant mothers and new parents via websites, advertising and coupons. But when the latest complaints arose, some say Pampers replied with form-letter types of responses.
After Louisiana resident Rosana Shah unknowingly put new Pampers Cruisers on her daughter, she started the Facebook group "Pampers bring back the OLD CRUISERS/SWADDLERS" in late 2009.
Shah bought Cruisers in November, as she had for some time, only to find the new version tucked inside with no wording on the box or even an insert to say the product was different.
"The moment I started to use these diapers I noticed her skin get really, really hot and red and she would actually pull away from me when it was time for a diaper change," Shah said.
P&G confirmed that some new diapers were shipped in the old boxes months before updated packaging hit stores in March. McCleary said it was a fairly standard practice when there is a big product change and production lines need to be switched.
Valentine was surprised that Pampers responded to her story of severe rash by giving her coupons for more diapers with Dry Max. Pampers' reputation is "damaged so much I will never trust them again," she said. "If I could realistically boycott every Procter & Gamble product, I would."
She has sworn off using any other P&G baby products, such as lower-priced Luvs diapers. Her daughter now wears Huggies Pure & Natural diapers, made by Kimberly-Clark Corp (KMB.N).
For now, Shah's daughter wears Target Corp's (TGT.N) up & up diapers during the day and Fisher-Price diapers at night.
Shah would use the old Pampers if they came back, but that is not in P&G's plans. The company did not say whether Dry Max would be added to Pampers Baby Dry or Luvs, but it does want more consumers to be able to experience what it calls "game changer" technology, McCleary said.
Finding a box of the old version of Cruisers "is like finding treasure, honestly it is," Shah said.
Reporting by Jessica Wohl; Editing by Michele Gershberg, Bernard Orr