It could be a company's worst marketing nightmare: its owner dying while using its product. But for Segway, the death of owner Jimi Heselden, 62, may become a more dire issue. Heselden's death, apparently while riding an all-terrain version of a Segway, raises the question of how a company already struggling with safety concerns and poor consumer perception can overcome such a blow.
Heselden, a millionaire who bought the company this year, is thought to have lost control of an all-terrain Segway while riding an uneven bridle path near his home in England, according to The Telegraph. He is believed to have fallen about 80 feet over a cliff: His body and the Segway were recovered from a river below.
The Segway's image problems began even before the device hit the market. Invented by Dean Kamen, the vehicle spurred speculation in 2001 with hints about an amazing new creation code-named "Ginger." Theories abounded, such as that the invention was an anti-gravity device or a hovercraft. Even South Park got into the act with a spoof episode titled The Entity, in which a character builds his own transportation device.
With all the hype, it was almost inevitable that the Segway would disappoint, says Robert Passikoff, the founder and president of Brand Keys, a brand-marketing consultancy. "The company was struggling to begin, with because it was essentially a promise made in terms of product that ultimately wasn't kept and didn't meet the expectations that consumers had," he notes.
"God's Way of Saying You Had Too Much Money"
After the device hit the markets, many consumers balked at the sticker price, which can run $6,000 or more. A few years after Segways went on sale, President George W. Bush was photographed jumping from one after losing control. In 2006, Segway issued a recall to repair more than 23,000 of the vehicles after finding that they could unexpectedly apply reverse torque to their wheels, possibly causing a rider to fall. Meanwhile, some cities restricted the vehicles from sidewalks because of safety concerns. Fox's comedy Arrested Development used the Segway as a punchline for its character, Gob Bluth, a part-time magician with an abundance of overconfidence and a distinct lack of talent.
The result? The Segway's now viewed as something that people don't want or desire, says Passikoff. "If you got one, it was God's way of saying you had too much money," he notes. "People weren't really all that interested in the concept."
In an emailed statement, Matthew Dailida, vice president of government affairs and business development for the Bedford, N.H.-based company, wrote: "Segway Inc. stands behind the safety of its Segway PT product when used in accordance with the User Materials. Mr. Heselden believed in the Segway PT product and we know that he would want us to get back to work at Segway Inc." The company website now features a note saying: "It is with great sadness that we have to confirm that Jimi Heselden OBE, has died in a tragic accident near his home in West Yorkshire."
One Segway dealer says he's not concerned about the negative publicity surrounding Heselden's death. Jimmy Reda, the manager of New York Motorcycle, which also sells Segways, tells DailyFinance that he hasn't had any questions from customers about the accident. The media "is more concerned about it than we are," Reda says.
Battling an Underlying Problem
While the accident may not have been caused by the Segway vehicle, one public relations expert tells Bloomberg News the company could use it as a "teachable moment for their customers."
But even if Segway is able to turn the tragedy into something positive, the company still will be battling its underlying problem, Brand Keys' Passikoff says. "I don't think people think about much [the Segway] at all, and that's the worst place for a new product to be condemned," he points out. "It's not top of mind, and this tragedy in terms of the owner is another joke."