Can J&J, on the litigation hot seat, hold off long-term brand and reputation damage?

Johnson & Johnson Baby products 2018
With Johnson & Johnson in court so often these days, a new case study looks at whether it can continue to hold trust with consumers across its portfolio including baby products. (J&J)

With Johnson & Johnson battling talc and opioid lawsuits and now a Risperdal verdict, has its storied stalwart reputation reached a tipping point? That’s what reputation management agency Alva wanted to find out, and it sifted through four years of perspectives from customers, consumers, regulators, politicians, journalists, investors and the general public to do it.

The answer, according to a just-released case study? Not yet. However, if the bad news continues to flow, that could change, said Alastair Pickering, Alva's co-founder and chief strategy officer.

“These are no longer things that can be seen as isolated one-off incidents and are now a pattern with a series now in close proximity to one another,” he said. "When you have a series of reputation shocks in close proximity, each news report then references the previous ones, and you get a cluster effect in the narrative, and a resuscitation of issues that would have gone away by now.”

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That “snowball effect” has already dinged J&J’s reputation, by Alva’s calculations. In the agency's annual reputation ranking, J&J has gone from sitting within the top 10 pharma companies in 2014 to second-to-last, Pickering said.

Part of the problem is that J&J, a household name on the consumer products side, has long stood above others in reputation, which not only makes it a more visible target, but also a brand with a potentially farther fall than other pharmas with lesser-known corporate brands.

Still, Pickering said, J&J’s strong reputational capital, goodwill and built-up trust with stakeholders has allowed it to weather bad news in the past. What happens next depends on the news and, ultimately, whether consumers decide to stick with or abandon the brand.

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One not-so-good sign? Alva’s measures of social media show consumer conversations that question or mention concerns around the safety of J&J products are way up in 2019. With brands like Tylenol and Baby Shampoo, J&J’s brand promise of trust and safety with groups such as mothers may be at risk.

“Beyond the lawsuits and settlement costs is clearly the erosion of this brand promise—why, as a mother, would I pay more for a product which is potentially no safer than a generic or a competitor’s and indeed may actually carry greater risk to my child or family?” the Alva report asks.