Johnson & Johnson: Look back before you go forward

Posted by on November 6, 2013

This week, one of the world’s most well-known and trusted health care brands settled one of the largest health care fraud suits in history. As stated by its general counsel, Johnson & Johnson settled the suit (which alleged that the company marketed a drug to patients who didn’t need it), with the intent of “moving on” and getting back to its core business of improving health across the globe.

But how does a company, one whose brand promise is based on a person’s most valuable asset – their health – move forward with marketing to its customers after allegedly misleading them for nearly a decade?

The answer, somewhat ironically, can come from the company’s own history. Specifically, Lawrence G. Foster; the man behind the brilliant PR response to the Tylenol crisis of 1982, who passed away last month.

That Johnson & Johnson’s current settlement and subsequent public relations challenge comes less than a month after Foster’s passing should not be lost on anyone. It begs the question of how Foster – who launched the Johnson & Johnson PR department – would have managed this 21st century situation.

The strategy with which Foster guided the company’s crisis response in the 80’s was based on the simple idea that the customer’s health and safety comes first. After reports of cyanide in Tylenol capsules, Foster counseled the Johnson & Johnson to pull all Tylenol products (poisoned or not) from the shelves immediately, at a great cost to the company. They did so, and emerged a stronger brand because of it.

The Johnson & Johnson settlement together with Foster’s death should serve as a reminder to the marketing community that we must aim higher than sales and profits. Rather, we must work to establish trust and transparency with our customers, and sell when there is a legitimate need for a product or service. Sticking to this simple principle, (one heralded in Conscious Capitalism) assures that our legacy as marketers will stand as a positive contribution to the world, and a legacy nearly as great as Foster’s.


  1. Thanks for sharing for connecting the dots between Foster’s passing and the crisis emerging from the suit. I’ll be tuning in to see how they handle the response, but the Tylenol case serves as a great analogy on how it can be done.

    Great post!

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