The Inside Story on J&J’s Revamped Marketing Mission Under Alison Lewis

Think global in scope, act local in execution

In the brand-new and buttoned-up New Brunswick, N.J., corporate offices of Johnson & Johnson, there's a conference room whose glass doors are adorned with an aqua decal of a baby's head, plus a couch that features two decorative pillows whose pattern is a mishmash of J&J brand logos and packaging. One could easily mistake this conference room for that of any other billion-dollar conglomerate—except the relentless branding won't let you forget where you are. It's a warm day in mid-May and Alison Lewis, the first global chief marketing officer of the consumer packaged-goods giant's consumer brands, would rather be interviewed here. Her office is messy, she insists, and meeting in the impersonal space allows us to briefly focus on the interior design—specifically, the pillows. "We market everywhere," Lewis jokes.

Indeed, the pillows represent an almost literal manifestation of the marketer's current mission. J&J does, actually, market everywhere—investing $1.12 billion in marketing in the U.S. alone in 2015, per Kantar Media, and an estimated $2.5 billion globally, according to reports. But how exactly the company markets everywhere has changed dramatically since Lewis joined. She has streamlined the marketing efforts of over 100 disparate brands—all of which had various marketing operations functioning simultaneously but not necessarily cohesively—into one centralized force. On top of that, Lewis says, she has been working to "globalize brands that in some cases didn't have as much scale in certain parts of the world." Top priority? The namesake, Johnson's, as well as Listerine, Neutrogena and Carefree.

It's a gargantuan task—not only because of the scale of J&J's marketing but also because the consumer group's 2015 revenue of $13.5 billion was down 6.8 percent versus 2014, while first-quarter revenue this year was down another 5.8 percent. (J&J's other two businesses, pharmaceuticals and medical products, are not part of this story.) But by all accounts, Lewis, who turns 49 this month, is unphased and ready to tackle all challenges. Ask anyone to describe her and you'll get variations on a theme, and the message usually goes something like this: She's a pragmatic and inspiring leader with a bold vision who tries to empower her people (she manages over 400 employees) to deliver. Lewis is most comfortable when she's championing this new model for J&J; it makes sense, since she's spent the last two-and-a-half years setting it up. And given the serious challenges that the company has had to face (see sidebar below), it is understandable that Lewis is strictly business in this interview.

Others cite Lewis' warmth and humanity, perhaps best embodied in an anecdote from one of her principal agency partners. Eileen Kiernan, who leads UM's J3 unit (part of IPG Mediabrands) dedicated entirely to handling all of J&J's media needs (won just last year), recalls traveling with Lewis to a meeting with an important industry partner to talk about some media opportunities, standard fare for the two. But Kiernan had just received word of the death of someone close to her. "If I hadn't been in a car with Alison, I don't think I would've been able to go forward with the day," Kiernan recalls. "The fact that even with something happening in your own life that you feel comfortable carrying on with work, knowing that you're not quite sure how you're feeling or that your A-game might be off, makes a difference. The level of [her] respect and care goes deep and the trust is there professionally. Therefore, the care is there personally."

With a background in consumer marketing at Coke, Lewis is bringing her experience to bear for J&J's variety of brands. Photo: Joshua Scott

Getting emotional