Excedrin and Tylenol Suffer Recall Headache

Can Novartis and J&J win back consumer confidence in their pain-reliever brands?

It’s enough to give brand marketers a whopping headache.

After years of brand advertising around famous slogans such as “Excedrin Headache Number 24,” Excedrin products were voluntarily and quietly yanked from shelves last January due to manufacturing problems, including pills of other products accidentally showing up in Excedrin bottles.

Parent company Novartis initially promised that part of the Excedrin product line would reappear this summer, but now the date has been pushed to the fourth quarter of 2012, according to a Novartis OTC rep.

In the meantime, several of Johnson & Johnson’s Tylenol products are still hard to find after three years of voluntary recalls. Some products continue to experience “supply disruptions as the company evaluates manufacturing alternatives,” said a J&J spokesman. Problems have included strange-smelling and possibly tainted pills. Full production is expected next year.

As rivals move in and consumers swap painkilling tips on Facebook, the branding investments behind Excedrin and Tylenol are going down the proverbial toilet.

Tylenol’s U.S. ad spend totaled almost $20 million in 2010, but that dropped to $3.5 million in 2011, per Nielsen. Excedrin’s annual U.S. ad budget had been about $35 million to $45 million before the recall, per Kantar Media. Excedrin’s U.S. ad spend was $10.8 million in the first quarter of 2011, and it plummeted to $640,000 in first-quarter 2012. All figures exclude online spending.

Tylenol admits its overall brand equity has softened since the recalls and “within the infant’s and children’s market, we have seen declines in many equity measures due to lack of product,” said the J&J rep.

Excedrin insists it has built a strong brand over 50 years and that it has heard from “a huge number of fans who are looking forward to the return of our products,” said a company spokesman. Nonetheless, the brand is giving only vague answers on Facebook to customers asking why the process is taking so long. As one consumer wrote in July: “I’m very disappointed with your company, all you can say is ‘we’re working on it’…If Excedrin ever makes it back to the shelf, I’ll have to think long and hard if I want to switch back from Bayer.”

“Recalls are notoriously toxic for brands, [especially] if the error is squarely associated with the brand, not outsiders,” said James Cockerille, director of strategy at FutureBrand North America. “Recalls flatten brand appeal and stifle positive word-of-mouth exchange.”

The absence of the Excedrin and Tylenol products forces people to consider rival products they used to ignore, Cockerille said. “The preference they hoped to create for their brand name over generics will be wasted.”

Defections are likely to be temporary, countered Jane Parker, CEO of brand consultant Interbrand Group’s InterbrandHealth. Both brands occupy a strong place in consumers’ minds that will minimize damage to their reputations, she said.

But Excedrin has a problem that Tylenol doesn’t. J&J decided years ago to build its corporate reputation as a healthcare company that people know and trust. “J&J’s decision to link all its product brands under its corporate name lets it weather product [recall] storms. It gives a halo to Tylenol,” Parker said. J&J recently threw its global ad account into review, seeking greater consolidation.

But Novartis doesn’t have a corporate brand presence tied to its OTC products. “Consequently, the Excedrin brand has to do all the heavy lifting,” Parker said. “The product is missing, and people don’t have a sense of who is behind the decision.”

And you can hear that brand equity slowly draining away.