Brands as Role Models – part 2

Another very clear memory, this one from when I was a teenager. It was 1982, and the New Wave was in full effect. My friends and I wore frilly collars and very swooped up New Romantic hair to parties, whereas by day we sported turned up Lacoste polos and Topsiders, as we’d been instructed by Lisa Birnbach’s Preppy Handbook. “Hey Mickey” was playing incessantly on the radio.

One evening in September Walter Conkrite brought us a news story that chilled us to the bone. Someone in Chicago had replaced Tylenol Extra Strength capsules with cyanide-laden capsules, and had expertly resealed the bottles and placed them on shelf in over half a dozen Chicago pharmacies. Seven people eventually died as a result.

Here is Time magazine’s retelling of the story over 30 years later:

“Without a suspect to revile, public outrage could have fallen squarely on Tylenol — the nation’s leading painkiller, with a market share greater than the next four top painkillers combined — and its parent corporation, Johnson & Johnson. Instead, by quickly recalling all of its products from store shelves, a move that cost Johnson & Johnson millions of dollars, the company emerged as another victim of the crime and one that put customer safety above profit. It even issued national warnings urging the public not to take Tylenol and established a hotline for worried customers to call.

Tylenol relatively quickly reestablished its brand, recovering the entire market share it lost during the cyanide scare. Though things could have gone very differently, the episode’s most lasting legacy has been in the annals of public relations, not poison control: the case has since become a model for effective corporate crisis management.”

 A brand that tells us its very mission is to enhance our health and well-being, particularly a brand that makes numerous products we use with our children, has a very important choice to make at these moments:  Do we live by our words, even if it costs us dearly? How a brand behaves in these moments is crucial not only for its own future, but for the morale of employees, and… for the example it sets to millions of young people.

 We live in a world where brands and the companies behind them are setting a moral example, knowingly or not. Brands like MCI and Enron sent an unfortunate message to young MBAs about what was appropriate behaviour. Today’s customer service brands such as Verizon, Telus, Citibank and TD are telegraphing to entire generations key values about how to treat people who come into your house or buy your products and services.

Brands, much more so than celebrities in my opinion, are role models. So let’s make sure our brands are setting the kind of examples we’d be proud to bring up 30 years from now.


– W.