What now for Johnson & Johnson, as brand-boosting vaccine turns to crisis
Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine started out as a clear boost to the company brand. It was among the earliest to market, the first approved in the U.S. as a single dose—and entirely not-for-profit, as the company began advertising last year.
But after a pause brought on by reports of rare blood clots among six women who received the J&J vaccine, the company suddenly finds itself under the glare of a harsh spotlight. The narrative had already begun turning negative when contract manufacturer Emergent Solutions mixed up ingredients in batches of J&J and AstraZeneca vaccines last month, leading to 15 million J&J doses being ruined and a supply glitch.
Suddenly a vaccine that appeared to have helped J&J rebound from nearly a decade of bad press—ranging from state and federal opioid and anti-psychotic drug marketing investigations, lawsuits alleging its baby powder caused ovarian cancer, and a series of production problems at the company’s own over-the-counter drug plants—has become an image issue in its own right.
The irony is that while the prior bad publicity stemmed from alleged wrongdoing, the current bad press comes as J&J seemingly tries to do everything right. Not only did J&J pledge to develop and distribute its vaccine not-for-profit, but it’s also been cooperative and transparent about issues with manufacturing and the blood-clot side effects. The company issued a statement on April 13 acknowledging the blood clot reports and saying it would cooperate fully in the federal review. J&J also took over management of the Emergent manufacturing plant at the Biden administration’s behest earlier this month to fix quality-control problems.
The problem for J&J is that the intensity of the current news coverage may be greater and pack more emotional punch than the rational side of what the company has done, says Robert Passikoff, president of consultancy Brand Keys.
“The vaccine brands are literally under a consumer microscope,” Passikoff says. “There’s no good way to explain to people that this is not likely to happen to you, that every drug has side effects.”
Reason vs. emotion
Actually, there are good ways to explain these things, but the question is whether people will listen.
So far, six women out of 6.8 million people given the J&J vaccine have developed blood clots—with a possible seventh, according to Fox News.
CBS News reported on April 14 that a study from Oxford University found actually a larger proportion of people, 4 to 5 in a million, appear to get similar blood clots with Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca vaccines—but that the risk of blood clots is actually much higher among people who get COVID-19, which also carries a far higher risk of death from other causes. (Two cautionary notes: This study is not yet peer-reviewed by outside scientists, and it was conducted at Oxford, which participated in developing the AstraZeneca vaccine.)
Writing in The Hill, opinion contributor Joe Concha takes media to task for “panic porn” over coverage of the J&J blood clots. He points out that twice as many people—one in 500,000—get struck by lightning each year as have reported blood clots so far from the J&J vaccine, while one in 586 Americans already have died from COVID-19. He also notes that an average of 450 people die in the U.S. annually from falling out of bed.
That may all be reasonable, Passikoff says. But what drives brand perceptions has much more to do with emotion, which is running against J&J this week, fueled by news coverage about the blood clots.
Social media provides ample evidence of this. Writer Andi Zeisler reported April 15 on NBCNews.com about getting deluged with tweets predicting, even reveling in, her imminent demise after she tweeted a selfie (“vaxxie”) showing she’d gotten the J&J vaccine.
“The whole conversation around the vaccine has become so politicized that there are certain segments of people who have created a sort of autobahn of misinformation,” says Dipanjan Chatterjee, VP and principal marketing analyst at Forrester. “They’re waiting to seize upon an opportunity, and this provides an engine to propel them at a rapid rate.”
Effect may be temporary
But any impact on J&J’s brand, or on COVID-19 vaccinations broadly, is likely to be temporary, says Gene Grabowski, crisis management specialist and partner at public relations firm Kglobal.
“The current publicity about the extremely rare side effects linked to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine will no doubt create even more doubt in the minds of many Americans and slow the nation’s progress” on vaccinations, Grabowski says. “It also creates immediate reputational and financial problems for Johnson & Johnson. But it’s unlikely to cause lasting harm.”
That’s because the J&J brand remains strong, he says.
Indeed, J&J’s reputation held up pretty well through its many years of bad publicity over everything from baby powder lawsuits to federal investigations and big settlements over its marketing of opioids and anti-psychotic drug Risperdal. Johnson & Johnson did fall from No. 13 on Fortune’s list of Most Admired Companies in 2017 to No. 26 in 2020. But the vaccine appeared to help it rebound to No. 15 on the 2021 list.
Even the drop in the Fortune rankings was among a group of investors and senior executives queried by Korn Ferry, notes Kimberly Whittier, associate professor of business administration at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. Most consumers are unaware of most of the troubles J&J had last decade, with the talcum powder litigation probably getting more attention than any of the others, Whittier says. And J&J still enjoys a considerable reputational halo from its handling of the Tylenol crisis in 1982, when it quickly pulled its market-leading analgesic from store shelves nationwide after some bottles in Chicago were laced with cyanide.
“If you have a strong brand to begin with, you can be insulated,” Whittier says.
More-knowledgeable investors are less likely to penalize J&J over vaccine problems than consumers, Whittier says. But she believes even consumers will give J&J a break, too, because, if there’s blame to be assigned, it may go to the Food and Drug Administration or Centers for Disease Control for fast-tracking vaccine authorization. Even there, she says, the blame will likely be mitigated by knowledge that the vaccine was fast-tracked to deal with a COVID crisis that justified increased risk.
While the facts may well be on J&J’s side, Whittier says the company is probably right in not making a high-profile public pronouncement about them. “When you start trying to explain,” she says, “you end up looking defensive.”
Up to now, the rapid vaccine rollout has actually been positive for J&J and the pharmaceutical industry as a whole, says Stacy Vaughn, U.S. managing partner for health of research firm Hall & Partners.
Still, the side-effect publicity is likely to increase vaccine hesitancy in at least some of the population, Vaughn says, whether that’s borne out by facts or not.
“Behavioral science tells us that a negative is much more impactful than a positive, that people are more motivated by fear than promise,” Vaughn says. “We are kind of pre-programmed from ancient times to react to dangers with amplified effect.”
That’s true, even if a rare but news-grabbing effect like blood clots is far less common than the threat of COVID-19 itself ... or lightning strikes.