On the eve of Twitter's IPO, one of the largest advertisers in the U.S. has remained largely absent from the social network.
Johnson & Johnson is taking a pass on delivering its brand messages in 140 characters or fewer.
The consumer-goods and health-care giant has accounts aimed at foreign markets and a few corporate handles like @JNJNews, which is for the media, but well-known J&J products like Visine and Neosporin don't have any Twitter handles.
Based on a review of J&J "megabrands" -- those that spent more than $10 million on measured media in 2012 -- in Ad Age's DataCenter, only three of 19, Aveeno Men's, Band-Aid and diabetic-products brand OneTouch, had active Twitter handles for a U.S. audience. (Five were excluded from the count because they were subcompanies or in the heavily regulated pharmaceutical category.)
When compared with its personal-care-product competitors, J&J's Twitter adoption is extremely low. Thirty of 34 Procter & Gamble "megabrands" were active on Twitter in the U.S., compared to all of Unilever's 19.
There are signs that J&J isn't satisfied with its digital direction. As Ad Age reported last week, J&J has hired Alison Lewis, Coca-Cola's former head marketer in North America, as global chief marketing officer of its consumer companies. The role will help J&J "better leverage successful digital and professional models globally," according to an internal announcement. Ms. Lewis has a reputation for bringing digital and social media into the mix -- she addressed those issues at a digital-marketing event last year at Procter & Gamble Co., now a rival, and in a presentation at last year's Association of National Advertisers Masters of Marketing event.
"All marketers are dealing with the reality of digital marketing being an important part of their overall marketing mix," Ms. Lewis told Ad Age.
J&J doesn't exhibit the same aversion to Facebook as it does to Twitter, which may be a result of having more time to get acclimated to a more established social network. Its Facebook page for Neutrogena, for example, has more than 1.3 million likes, but the brand doesn't have a U.S. Twitter presence.
As it prepares to go public, Twitter needs to demonstrate to Wall Street that it has widespread adoption on Madison Avenue, since 89% of its revenue this year through Sept. 30 came from advertising. For the most part, brands have established at least a non-paid Twitter presence, which makes J&J's absence all the more curious. J&J spent $1.65 billion on advertising in the U.S. alone in 2012, according to Ad Age DataCenter.
J&J isn't completely silent on Twitter, but its experiments are few and mostly conducted outside the U.S. It's possible that's a function of J&J brands focusing on a more mature audience than the one Twitter is known for, according to Alex Jacobs, Digitas' VP-social marketing.
"If [brand managers] are really looking intelligently at the platform, Twitter may not be the place where their target and potential customers live. It's a platform that tends to be a little more millennial-focused," he said. "It's possible that up until now, they can afford to not be there."
J&J's Aveeno Men's has a verified Twitter account that published hundreds of tweets in June related to the Confederations Cup soccer tournament in Brazil, which the brand sponsored. A large portion of them were written in Spanish, and the account has only tweeted once since June.
There are also examples of J&J brands that don't have a U.S. account but seem to be experimenting in other markets. Splenda has a verified account for Latin America that's well established, with more than 34,000 followers. And Clean & Clear has an account for Sri Lanka, while Neutrogena has one for India and Listerine has one for Indonesia, though none are labeled as verified with Twitter's blue checkmark.
One factor behind J&J's reluctance to engage in social media more broadly and Twitter specifically has been the corporate culture of what's a predominantly highly regulated pharmaceutical and medical-device company, said a person familiar with the company.
"For the pharma guys and the law department, the risk tolerance on social media was really low," which filtered down to less-regulated skin-care and hair-care brands, he said.
An early debacle
It probably didn't help that J&J's first major encounter with Twitter was a deluge of criticism over a 2008 video ad by its Motrin brand that some people believed made fun of moms who carry their babies in slings. The @Motrin handle was hijacked by one of the brand's critics at the onset of the controversy.
J&J's lack of involvement with Twitter wasn't for lack of trying, said another former J&J executive, who had attempted to at least get teen-focused brands such as AcuVue and Clean & Clear active on Twitter, ultimately unsuccessfully. At a highly decentralized company, encouragement from corporate marketers wasn't necessarily enough to get brands on board.
A J&J spokeswoman said decisions about social media are made at the brand level.
"We believe in the power of Twitter and when we have a brand strategy and message that resonates by leveraging this channel, we use it," she said.
As an example of brand activity on Twitter, she pointed to Neutrogena's "dermatologist on call" program, where participants can tweet questions on topics like acne and sun protection to experts. Those expert tweets don't come from a J&J account, however. They're posted by a handle called @Influenster, which describes itself as an "exclusive community of invited trendsetters" in its Twitter bio.