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Tylenol 2010: Here's What We All Need to Learn

Tylenol 2010: Here's What We All Need to Learn

This is not a column condemning or lauding Johnson & Johnson or any of their manufacturing practices or brands. It is about communication and trust; and the role of retailers.

Almost 30 years ago in the early weeks of October 1982, J&J had already elevated to the gold standard for integrity and how to face disaster as they responded to the Tylenol product-tampering incidents. It was commonplace for companies and universities to use the situation as a case study for “excellence”; often juxtaposed alongside television footage of President Nixon's handling of Watergate. Reinforcing one behavior and denouncing the other.

During the Tylenol recall, I helped Wakefern's consumer affairs department in the communication efforts to the local television news channels, as requests for interviews were overwhelming; and Wakefern staff was already overextended. Our job was to help allay shoppers' fears; even though the seven incidences occurred in the Chicago area, J&J extended their communications and partnership efforts throughout the country. There were an estimated 31 million bottles of Tylenol products on the shelves.

By early October, J&J had removed all the Tylenol SKUs from shelves, warned consumers through public relations as well as paid advertising to avoid using their products and return them to where purchased.

Seeing the process first hand, one of the major reasons for this success was very clear to me — J&J had worked very hard in the face of possibly the biggest brand disaster we had seen to protect their consumers as well as their integrity; and an important part of their effort was to communicate clearly and work quickly with their retail partners.

1982, in light of the headlines these days, seems as if it never happened. Many fingers are being pointed at the factory that produced the current recalled product, the executives running the company and even at the Food & Drug Administration. The strong bond between retailers and this company doesn't seem to even exist as it did almost 30 years ago when people worked together to protect American consumers from harm or possible death. Perhaps it is a result of how brands and retailers have evolved into more adversarial positions, sometimes too focused on price, private label or reverse costing.

There is no question that the two circumstances are very different. One was a criminal act perpetrated by a scoundrel who killed seven people (and by the way has never been caught, although the 1982 investigation was reopened in 2009) while the current problems all point to bad manufacturing processes. The learning for both retailers and brands is simple — be honest and work together. Sending subcontractors into stores pretending to be shoppers to purchase products off shelves does no good — and weakens integrity to the shopper and the retailer.

Phil Lempert is contributing editor of Supermarket News and CEO of The Lempert Report and He is a well-known author, speaker and media personality focusing on topics such as consumer behavior, marketing trends and new products.

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