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J&J ought to take crisis management lessons from the Maggi Noodles controversy

Ajita Shashidhar     July 25, 2018

Baby products maker Johnson & Johnson has been in the eye of a storm globally, thanks to the row over its baby powder containing asbestos which has supposedly caused ovarian cancer to women who have been using the product for a prolonged period. A US court recently ordered the company to pay punitive damages worth $4.6 billion to 22 women. The 124-year-old brand, which has been grappling with this issue since 2011 has seen a 20 per cent dip in sales in the US. Jorge Mesquitta, Chairman and Executive Director of J&J's global consumer products division has also admitted that prolonged success had made the company complacent. In March this year, J&J re-launched its entire baby products range. The new range is known to have eliminated dyes and sulphates and has replaced mineral oils with coconut oils.

The company has also been in trouble in India on and off. In 2013, the Food and Drug Administration had closed down the J&J plant in Mumbai when they found 15 batches of Johnson & Johnson baby powder were sterilized by ethylene oxide, which is a carcinogenic and irritant. Once synonymous with baby care, paediatricians no longer vouch for the brand. But why is Johnson & Johnson in trouble so often? Is re-launching a new avatar of the brand or the global head admitting complacency really enough? In the US, J&J has been re-working its formulations for the last three years, but it is frequently being slammed with court cases.

Brand gurus say that the biggest drawback of Johnson & Johnson is their inability to proactively communicate. "They always tend to think that the problem will tide over and they don't communicate," points out N. Chandramouli, CEO of TRA, a brand audit company. Also, the global Chairman admitting complacency after the crisis has broken out is not enough. What the company needs to do is openly engage with the stakeholders, and brand experts are not really sure if J&J is serious about it.

Even though Johnson's Baby Powder is not banned in India, independent communication expert, Anup Sharma, says that the company should proactively start communicating with its stakeholders (mothers, paediatricians and the certifying organisations) that it is following the rule book. "One can't communicate only when crisis hits them. J&J India should start talking about its products."

The baby products company should definitely take a tip or two from the way Nestle India handled the Maggi Noodles controversy. When the news first broke out about Maggi containing harmful MSG and lead, Nestle's immediate reaction was also not to respond, which drew considerable flak. However, the company quickly made amends by not just communicating aggressively with its stakeholders and talking about the crisis through a series of emotional advertisements; it also got its best crisis manager, Suresh Narayanan to take charge of the Indian business. Narayanan was heading Middle East and Africa during the Arab Spring and is known for his crisis management skills. Not only did Maggi Noodles get a clean chit, it also regained its original market share of close to 60 per cent within a year of the crisis.

The need of the hour for J&J is to engage with its stakeholders and renew trust rather than wait for yet another crisis to happen.

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