Call it Nightmare on Main Street.
While the movie remake Nightmare on Elm Street was terrifying movie-lovers this weekend, Johnson & Johnson was dealing with a nightmare of its own: the recall of seven products, including children's Tylenol. The recall was prompted by "manufacturing deficiencies" that could lead to "potency, purity or quality" problems, according to the Food and Drug Administration announcement on Saturday.
Consumers with a long memory can't help but relate the current recall to the infamous Tylenol crisis in 1982. Several people died after taking Tylenol laced with cyanide, before it was discovered that tampering caused the tragedy. Johnson & Johnson, though not at fault, was lauded for its quick reaction.
The company spent over $100 million to remove all Tylenol from store shelves and create a new tamper-proof bottle, an industry first which created a standard for pharmaceutical packaging. Consumer confidence eventually recovered and Tylenol regained its market share. This time, it seems, Johnson & Johnson's McNeil Consumer Healthcare unit, who makes children's Tylenol, has been less responsive.
"The recall quickly became a flashpoint for some parents," reports The New York Times. "Some people said they felt frustrated in their efforts to obtain more information from the company. Others said they had lost confidence in the products. This is at least the fifth recall for consumers of McNeil products in less than a year because of quality control issues."
Obviously, when recalls are conducted because of a quality problem on the part of the manufacturer, it can shake consumer confidence. The recent spate of highly publicized Toyota car recalls are proof enough that such actions can do a lot of damage to a brand's image.
The interesting side effect of the children's Tylenol recall is that the maker "will have to work to counter increasing consumer skepticism about whether they should pay more for name-brand children's medicines when there are lower-cost drugstore brands available."
Michael Braun, an assistant professor of marketing at the M.I.T. Sloan School of Management, told The New York Times, "They are going to have to go to greater lengths. The greater the harm to the reputation, the more expensive it is to fix it."
Jennifer Perrotta, a New York mother of two, provided a consumer's perspective to Braun's statement: "It's very disturbing because you go to the store and buy the name brands thinking you are getting quality goods and then you find this out and you don't know who to trust now. You kind of lose confidence in the brand names you have been using for years."
Tylenol.com's home page features the press release from McNeil Consumer Healthcare, a unit of Johnson & Johnson, about the FDA recall, which in turn links to McNeil's Product Recall microsite.
With the recall spreading to Canada (and still spreading confusion in the U.S., judging by comments on Twitter and Facebook), the company may want to be more proactive to reassure parents that their children aren't at risk.
In the meantime, concerned parents will be reassessing image campaigns, such as the spot below.