by Christopher Paris
VP Operations, Oxebridge

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) provides guidance information on “Publicizing your ISO 9001:2008 or ISO 14001:2004 Certification.” Unfortunately, the organization’s typical self-preservation-obsessed paranoia does more harm than good when it comes to promoting the very standards they are trying to sell, and dutiful registrars and accreditation bodies blindly go along, unaware of the money they are costing themselves.

Spiteful Nose, Say Au Revoir to Face.

Throughout the US, accredited registrars are required to instruct ISO 9001 end user organizations of the proper way to use the ISO 9001 mark; unfortunately, for the sake of speed (and due to poor training) most auditors simply warn clients “you cannot use it on product.” This is a massive misstatement of fact, and is harmful not only to the end user’s ability to promote their hard-won ISO 9001 certification, but it cripples US users of the mark to promote ISO 9001 in general. (1)

ISO 9001 mark on Peruvian health product

In fact, even trudging through the protectionist drivel of ISO’s “guidelines,” one cannot find a total prohibition of putting the ISO 9001 mark on product. ISO indicates that the only restriction would be to do so in a way that implies the product is certified, since ISO 9001 is a quality management system certification.

The reason ISO is so obsessed with this is simple – they offer other product certification standards, and they do not want ISO 9001 wrongly being confused on this point, as it could hinder sales of their product standards, which make up a far larger percentage of the ISO catalog than management system standards.

But in its attempt to clarify between product and management system certifications, ISO muddies the water until there’s no more water left… just dry mud. End users who would otherwise proudly slather their products and marketing materials with the ISO 9001 mark (and, thus, promote ISO itself) are left crippled, relegating the promotion of their certification to a few press releases and an obscure corner of their website and letterhead. Without any context, the mark is lost, no one knows what it means, and the general population remains woefully uninformed about ISO 9001 and the benefits it can mean for quality.

As I write this, I am in Peru where the paranoia of ISO’s profit-obsessed leadership has not quite reached the levels it has in the US. This country, famous for the import of Chinese knock-offs and pirata DVDs, nevertheless has an important lesson to teach the US, other nations, and ISO itself. Here, the ISO 9001 mark is everywhere, and as a result the general population of Peru is familiar with ISO 9001 as a mark of quality.

This point is worth repeating, with emphasis. In Peru, the average consumer seeks out brands or products with the ISO 9001 logo on them… that means the mandate for companies to achieve ISO 9001 certification is not driven by government contract or a “prime” forcing their subcontractors to implement the standard. The entire population of Peru is.

I’m not kidding — school children in Peru have heard of ISO 9001. In the US, the children of ISO consultants barely know what it is.

And you don’t need a statistician to tell you that the opinions of masses of individual consumers are more powerful than any tiny government contract sub-clause or Honeywell “SPOC” requirement.

Not Perfect, But More Perfect Than US

To be fair, not every usage of ISO 9001 mark in Peru is “kosher” (a word you surprisingly don’t hear used much in this country.) Near the Oxebridge offices here, there is a gigantic billboard for bottled water which boasts “triple certificaciones” (ISO 9001, 14001 and OHSAS 18000) – and it’s pretty clear they are trying to indicate the product is certified. But this is an outlier. While it may seem remarkable, given Peru’s notoriety as a counterfeit product (and currency!) dumping ground, the overwhelming number of ISO 9001 marks are being used (a) in the proper manner, clearly indicating the system is certified, and not the product, and (b) issued by an accredited registrar. These are not the “fake” ISO 9001 marks we see on so many counterfeit products. In Peru, the counterfeits are so lazy, they don’t even bother with an ISO 9001 mark at all.

In shops from giant retailers like ACE Hardware and Ripley, to tiny family-run paint stores and delicatessens, the ISO 9001 mark is everywhere. Driving through a state peaje (toll), you will be handed a receipt from the toll authority, featuring the ISO 9001 mark on the bottom (see above). It’s even on the ham (see left.)

True, the average Peruvian may not know (or care about) the difference between a product certification and a management system certification – when asked, all they know is that the product with the ISO 9001 mark is likely to be of higher quality than the one without — and after all, isn’t that what ISO intended with its 9001 standard? But while ISO niggles over that ridiculously mundane detail, it hobbles the worldwide acceptance of ISO 9001 by keeping consumers in the dark over what it means.

Peruvians are obsessed with quality, and in this developing country the people want to improve their lives through the purchase and use of reliable, quality products and services. (2) In manufacturing shops here, quality isn’t just a marketing word, the managers know that the only way to compete is to produce a high-quality product while keeping costs down through tight process controls. It’s not perfect, yet, but then consider how many ISO 9001 certified US automotive companies just got bailed out by the US government, or filed bankruptcy, and ask again. (3)

ISO’s Self Abuse

The irony here, of course, is that by trying to protect the validity of ISO’s logo and the ISO 9001 mark, and to protect its product certification profits, ISO is shoving the reputation of ISO 9001 into a dark corner of total obscurity, resulting in less drivers for ISO 9001, and inevitably lower sales of their standards. Worse yet, this means a lower adoption rate for ISO 9001 among companies that could desperately use it, either to help reduce product safety issues, or just to improve competitiveness and quality.

If nothing drives home ISO’s priorities, this sentence (from the guidance document) should:

You need to take care not to imply that ISO audited your organization and certified it – although it is perfectly okay to give information on ISO as the source of ISO 9001:2008….

“Perfectly okay” to include marketing language that promotes ISO, just don’t promote yourself. Hmph.

ISO, Meet Wal-Mart

The important point, of course, is that there shouldn’t be any confusion as to what ISO (the organization) does and does not do. It doesn’t actually certify anything, it only publishes standards used by other organizations to certify stuff. Fair point. They are worried the use of their standards’ names will confuse the stupid populace with the name of the organization. Of course, the choice to include the name “ISO” in the title of every standard was ISO’s, and now they are living with the consequences. Not content to throw out the baby with the bathwater, ISO — and then the drooling accreditation and certification bodies that follow suit — tear up the entire neighborhood’s plumbing and ditch that, too.

What ISO needs to do is to find a balance between its paranoid over-protection of its name and its standards, and provide more flexible guidelines for ISO 9001 certified companies when using the ISO 9001 mark. It needs to promote the notion of using the mark on product, provided the language includes “quality system certified” or some other micro-clarifier. The thing is, this is simple, and many companies (outside of the US) are doing just that.

How? Because their accreditation bodies are spending more time worrying about the merits of certificates issued by their country’s registrars, instead of playing hired gun for ISO. As a result, the registrars themselves spend more time doing their job — verifying compliance to ISO 9001 — and less of it interpreting ISO’s paranoid delusions.

This results in the population of consumers quickly becoming familiar with the mark en masse, and subconsciously identifying it with quality, driving purchases to ISO 9001 certified companies, thereby making ISO 9001 more attractive to manufacturers and retailers. Instead of seeing dwindling ISO 9001 uptake in countries such as the US and UK, this single step might reverse the trend away from ISO 9001 (and towards alternatives like CMMI), and single-handedly put ISO 9001 back on the map as the world’s primary quality system standard.

Why? Because Joe and Jane Consumer would be demanding it at the Wal-Mart level…  not because some government Contracting Officer typed it into an obscure RFP that will only be bid on by a handful of contractors, and never have any public exposure whatsoever.

In an era where the only growth among US registrars is through acquisition (and — I’m looking at you, Intertek — how’s that working out?), clarifying the rules just ever-so-slightly and allowing the massive consumer population to become a vast army of pro-ISO 9001 supporters could save this dying industry.

And just to get the self-promoting cynics on board with this plan, just think of how many more ISO 9001 books and public speaking events could put on the calendar if the audience was the entire US consumer base? Imagine if the names “Jack West” or “Lorri Hunt” were in the public lexicon, instead of relegated to dingy hotel conference rooms with blurry PowerPoint projectors.

Well, okay… one step at a time.

(1) Manufacturers: for a bit of fun, when your registrar auditor tells you that you can’t use the mark on product, take them out to the shipping area, flip over the cardboard boxes, and plop an indignant thumb at the ISO 9001 mark on the bottom of the box, inked there by the box manufacturer. Then, listen to how many times the auditors stammers, “but… but…. but….” In all likelihood, the auditor will make the bold, and not a little defamatory, declaration that your packaging manufacturer is using the mark “illegally”.

(2) Whenever I buy a car, I ask the sales rep or manager if they know what ISO 9001, TS 16949 or even QS9000 is… for the past ten years, not a single one had ever heard of it. If the US can’t even be bothered to teach their sales reps how to market their ISO certification, then the US public’s ignorance of it is no surprise.

(3) Some will point to Peru’s standing in the ISO Survey, the annual count of ISO 9001 certificates broken down by country, and note that Peru is not the highest ranking nation in the survey. This is because the bulk of home-grown ISO 9001 certificates are within the agricultural and food production sectors, and not within manufacturing. Peru’s manufacturing base is growing, but still in its infancy (which is why Oxebridge is here), so the ISO 9001 marks seen on products are typically on imported products. But, again, the consumer drives the demand for ISO 9001, so retailers must find ISO 9001 certified manufacturers elsewhere and then import the products to Peru.

About Christopher Paris

Christopher Paris is the founder and VP Operations of Oxebridge. He has over 30 years' experience implementing ISO 9001 and AS9100 systems, and is a vocal advocate for the development and use of standards from the point of view of actual users. He is the author of Surviving ISO 9001 and Surviving AS9100. He reviews wines for the irreverent wine blog, Winepisser.


ISO 45001 Implementation