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

Think global in scope, act local in execution

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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

That Lewis is kindhearted and empathetic isn't surprising, even if she is more guarded talking to the press. It is a strength that she uses to boost the human, emotional side of J&J's brand marketing. "At the end of the day, people are always buying what you sell, so if you're selling mouthwash or beauty cream or even a baby-care product, of course you know they have a need and you fulfill that need," says Lewis. "But the thing that I believe sort of sways them to choose your brand over everyone else's brand is how they feel. That purpose, that emotion is critical."

A cursory glance at J&J's more unified marketing messages reveals that that is exactly what each brand is trying to deliver. Consider Neutrogena's introduction in the U.S. this year of new varieties of foundation for women of color. The company knew it had a gap in its portfolio, notes Ginny Friedman, group brand director for Neutrogena. By addressing that directly in its marketing, the brand "had a huge opportunity to connect with consumers in a different way."

Instead of letting consumers find the new product on shelves, the brand opted to reach out directly to those customers who had voiced complaints, inviting them to join a discussion via iPhone's FaceTime feature with a brand ambassador. Little did participants realize during the conversations that that brand ambassador was actually actress Kerry Washington, who had herself shared with the company her concerns about a lack of makeup varieties for women of color. Washington told Adweek this past March that she was thrilled with the campaign. "For me to be able to tell each of those women, 'Please know that your voice matters. Don't ever forget that your voice matters. Look what you've done to transform culture based on having an opinion and being strong enough to share that opinion.' That was so emotional for me and so rewarding," she said in the interview.

Adds Friedman: "When we came up with the idea that we would surprise and delight our customers, we felt it was social at its core and lived into the principles that Alison set out" for J&J marketing.

For Lewis, those FaceTime conversations showed that the brand "really listens" and "really cares" for its consumers, lending them unique authenticity.

Right here, all over the world

Lewis describes her 25-year career as "rich and deep in CPG." She learned the fundamentals of brand management at Kraft, where she served in various roles in Canada in the early '90s. Then, in 1996, she moved to Coca-Cola, where she spent the next 18 years and which she describes as "probably one of the best schoolings in marketing because that is what the company is. The Coca-Cola Co. is marketing."

With her impressive brand marketing background, J&J tapped Lewis in late 2013 to modernize how it markets its consumer products. "Global marketing services as a construct didn't exist until Alison joined," says Vineet Mehra, president of J&J's consumer group. "If you came here two years ago, we were great marketers, but probably all came from different places or grew up in different companies. There wasn't really a J&J way of marketing."

Today, there's not only a way, there's also a framework which more than 2,000 J&J employees spent three months last year learning—on how brands should be allocating resources, whether that's globally or locally, and how those brands should be working with the company's agency partners. Lewis explains the key element to that framework is taking a global idea and being able to "trans-create" it locally—in other words, how marketers adapt a marketing campaign from one language to another without losing the original message. Simply put, it's about coming up with a pitch that's global in scope but that's executed by local markets and local agencies.

For example, in April the company launched a new campaign for Listerine from JWT featuring the tagline "Bring out the bold." The campaign and its rollout this spring is an example of the new framework in action. By using research, data and analytics to discover a commonality among Listerine users—essentially that they're bolder than the average consumer because they're more likely to have skydived, more likely to have done handstands in yoga, and more likely to have floated in the Dead Sea. From there, the global team identified a unifying tagline ("Bring out the bold") that could be trans-created in markets around the world.

"You see executions that take into account the sort of cultural nuances in Asia versus what would happen in the U.S.," explains Lewis. "So it's really getting to the relevancy thing … what's going to work in my marketing to connect with the consumer in my market."

Mehra says of Lewis: "She's got a great, deep sense of purpose that she tries to encourage the organization to inject into our brands."

As simple as the company's new marketing philosophy may sound, it's no small task to take over more than 100 brands and unite them under the new way of working. That it has gone off with few hitches is a credit to Lewis' leadership style, according to Kiernan. "Having seen the complexity of steering an organization as decentralized as J&J used to be—Coke was kind of the same way in navigating between local and global, global and local—I believe that the manner in which Alison leads has made her a real foil for the potential downfall that can happen when you are trying to globalize brands in a large, complex organization." As she points out, "Often there's pushback, there's a bit of a land grab, there's concern about where the power sits, who uses power and who gains power. Alison's style of leadership took a lot of that energy out of the system. And you believe in her agenda—it's smart, it's well thought through, it's levelheaded."

It must be said that not all marketing experts agree centralized messaging is the best strategy.

"The creativity, flexibility, adaptability of this highly decentralized organization has probably been one of the strengths of J&J," argues Jerry Thomas, CEO of research firm Decision Analyst. It was to the company's benefit that the "average person on the street isn't aware that J&J makes most of the products that it makes," he goes on. "That gives J&J a lot of protection as a company because there are hundreds of brands that operate semi-autonomously, semi-independently, and they are not closely tied or identified to J&J."


Thomas points to the company's current baby powder controversy, which he believes "is a higher-risk problem for them because the Johnson name" is prominently displayed on packaging that "could link directly and immediately to how people think about J&J." He may have a point: The YouGov BrandIndex in May found that J&J was at its lowest consumer perception point in nearly three-and-a-half years.

Lewis stands by her mission. "This is not unique to Johnson & Johnson," she says. "This is happening in every industry. We are in an entirely different era where people care about what companies do. And they want more information in terms of every aspect of that company." She's simply trying to give them that information in a more organized and cohesive manner, she insists. Marketers, Lewis believes, "have to recognize that we are in the era of transparency," making sure that consumers have all information about product ingredients and manufacturing at their fingertips.

Though already more than two years into the strategy, Lewis feels she still has a long way to go toward bringing J&J's disjointed marketing structure together. Her colleagues certainly plans to give her the runway to do the job. There's "a lot of excitement behind having a global marketing organization, having a vision to build brands globally," says Mehra. "To declare that we want to be the world's best marketer upfront, that's energized lots of people, gotten lots of people ready to go."

And if that means ordering embossed pillows for every J&J conference room around the world to stay on message, so be it.

This story first appeared in the June 20, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.

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@KristinaMonllos Kristina Monllos is a senior editor for Adweek.