Why Buy the Expensive Tylenol Brand any more? Where Trust intersects with Value.

A feature in the Sunday New York Times about Johnson & Johnson struggling with many of it’s consumer brands raises a much bigger issue… when you lose trust in a brand name. The specific manufacturing problems and recalls for J&J open up consideration of less marketed store brands. In that moment where value intersects with (brand) price, it will be interesting to see how consumers shift shopping behaviors over the near to longer term.

Johnson & Johnson’s challenge is to resuscitate consumers after a protracted period of consumer product recalls and the over-arching quality concerns. Many of their brands are affected including Tylenol, Motrin, Rolaids, Pepcid AC and even some Neutrogna skin care products. While we had predicted in an earlier blog that J&J would do the right thing, they have been slow to take appropriate action and the press continues to hammer them for it.

But the bigger issue is how tough economic times have given consumers the impetus to re-evaluate the “value” of branded products and services. As consumers turn to less expensive products and store brands, many are most likely evaluating the price-value differential of highly marketed and branded goods against the functional value of cheaper alternatives.

What differentiates successful brands from parity products is the relationship each brand creates with its consumers. That relationship has to be very carefully nurtured and maintained over a long period of time. Just like any other investment, every communication and behavior builds brand equity credits in the consumers mind.

So when a brand stumbles on a primary element of that relationship, it opens up a consumer’s critical focus on whether that value still exists. In the case of J&J, that value equates to “trust”. As we learn more and more about the issues with quality control problems in multiple factories and continuing recalls, what we are really doing is asking ourselves if that company has violated our trust. To the extent it has, then we are open to considering other alternatives. When the parent and sub-brands are as well regarded as J&J line-up, then the tumble can be quite steep.

While I continue to believe that J&J will ultimately fix all of their problems and return to the quality manufacturer we believed they were… it will take time and significant investment in brand-building to re-build the type of relationship they once engendered, brand by brand.

For smart brand marketers, it is critical to re-examine the nature of the relationship their brands have with their consumers. This will mean articulating the specific elements of that special relationship that engages consumers, and is the reason they pay more for your products than other comparable products. Marketers need to understand what is at risk, and plan ahead how they will respond when a problem occurs that is part of that brand relationship.

In my own world, I am now considering whether the store brand of acetaminophen isn’t just as good as Tylenol. I purchased a bottle because Tylenol wasn’t available. So my functional need has trumped my brand relationship. Multiply that on a global scale and the numbers are staggering.

J&J has its job cut out in rebuilding brands. But so do many other companies that falter in living up to what their brand stands for, particularly in the current soft global economic climate.

Do you think Tylenol and Rolaids can make it back easily?