J&J taps the power of empathy with apps that take wellness beyond its products

J&J logo on building
Johnson & Johnson, pushing empathy as a tool to connect with consumers, is using product-paired apps as a way to do well by doing good.

Experience and expertise are important in business strategy, but a top Johnson & Johnson marketing exec believes another E-word needs to join that list—empathy. The healthcare giant's consumer business plans to do just that, to differentiate its brands and drive beyond product messaging.

Debra Bass, president of global marketing services at Johnson & Johnson Consumer Companies, figures consumers are looking for empathy from their brands these days.

“When we look at the generation of millennials today, they expect purpose-driven brands—brands and companies that stand for something and that have a point of view beyond pushing a product,” she said at last month's Mobile World Congress.

Speaking from her experience working in healthcare and pharma, she added that empathizing with patients and "what they’re going through" is the starting point to not only help relieve their symptoms or cure their disease, "but also to help them as a person have a better outcome, a happier outcome.”

That's why J&J’s consumer business has been launching apps and technology solutions one after the next. For instance, J&J rolled out an app for the nicotine-replacement product Nicorette that includes community support for quitting smoking.

And the list goes on: Neutrogena’s light therapy mask to treat acne has its own app, and the Listerine Smile Detector app for vision-impaired people uses facial recognition software to determine when a person smiles, so users know when to smile back. The soon-to-be-released Nod app, created in conjunction with Mimo, is designed to help parents create customized sleep plans for their babies.

Folks across the company have jumped on board, Bass said, in part because the approach allows J&J people “to lean into a higher purpose for a brand that elevates it beyond the functional benefits of a product. ... I’m much more excited to improve human lives and livelihoods than to just do traditional marketing.”

It seems to be working. Last fall, J&J ranked No. 9 on The Empathy Business’ annual list (its third year in the top 10) of the most empathetic companies in 2016.

While Bass’ work is on the consumer side of J&J, its pharma unit Janssen has also been driving innovation initiatives in the same vein. Pharma is J&J's biggest division, contributing $33.5 billion in overall J&J sales in 2016, while the consumer group added another $13.3 billion, and its third division, medical devices, contributed $25.1 billion, according to J&J reports.