Betting Against the Brand

As one who passionately builds brands for a living, it saddens me when I am forced to bear witness to the downward spiral of a once-strong brand.  The recent troubles faced by Tylenol and other huge brands from McNeil Consumer Healthcare bear witness to the fact that, while the identity of a brand can help bring a product to the heights of popularity, that same identity, when linked to negative events, can bring the product crashing down in the minds of consumers.

Tylenol has a long history of bumps in the road, starting with drug-tampering problems back in 1982, which resulted in the brand being held up as an example of what to do when disaster strikes your product.  Take responsibility.  Take Action.  Don’t make excuses.

The public was reassured by how the Tylenol scare was handled and sales eventually returned to the brand.  Tylenol came to mean a trusted and safe product once again.  And in a market with unimaginable generic competition, that trust went a long way toward making consumers feel like the branded choice was the right choice.

More recent troubles, however, cannot be blamed on nameless and faceless culprits who are threatening the safety of the American public.  This time the responsibility for manufacturing irregularities fall solidly in the lap of McNeil.  There is no denying that they must take responsibility, there is nowhere else to put it.  But the public is not so quick to forgive this time.

Part of the difference is that this time McNeil is truly to blame for the issue.  And the other part of the difference comes from how the world has changed in those intervening 28 years.  In the world of 1982, the news of the recall and corrective action came through formal channels and gossip about the problem was contained within neighborhoods.  In the world of 2010, news of the recall hit Twitter and Facebook long before it made the front pages of the newspaper or local news broadcasts.  Along with the immediacy of informing the public, McNeil was unable to control the message, and unprepared to deal with the fallout.  Their customer service resources were inadequate, their recall website not up to date, their response times were not up to snuff.

So now, in addition to being worried about the threat that recalled medications might hold for their families, people are angry that McNeil isn’t managing the situation as well as they could.  The brand is breaking.

As the process of restocking medicine cabinets with generic versions of McNeil’s recalled drugs is documented in minute detail via social media networks, more and more people see that generics offer safe, cost-effective alternatives to the branded drugs.  The more social proof that consumers see that the generics are just as effective, the more likely they will be to continue to eschew the branded products.  There is no upside of going back to Tylenol or Benedryl.  Those names are tainted with both the manufacturing issues (real or imagined, it makes no difference) and the customer service disappointments.

The bar for what consumers expect from a generic drug is much lower.  Does it work?  Does it cost less than the branded product?  Is it safe?  Customer service and advertising and image don’t enter into the equation for these purposes.

By dropping the ball so many times, McNeil is training consumers to be satisfied with a less impressive package.  It will be interesting to see if they are able to resolve and recover from this current crisis situation.  As surprised as I am to say this, my bets in this case are against the brand.

13. May 2010 by Ruth Folger Weiss
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