Live from Cannes Lions: Alison Lewis, CMO of Johnson & Johnson Consumer, has had the massive opportunity and responsibility to rebuild some of America’s most iconic brands in a time of extreme consumer skepticism and change.

She started her talk at Cannes by showing us a Johnson & Johnson ad from 1922 called Wonderful Mother. The hero a beautiful image of a woman cradling her babies and the copy includes the quote “I had a wonderful mother. All that I am, I owe to her.” from a pretty powerful influencer at the time – Abraham Lincoln.

The ad was a huge departure for Johnson & Johnson. Before that, their marketing had been very clinical, showcasing the science of baby care. This was the first moment they showed the beauty and power of motherhood. The science was still important because parenthood requires constant decision making; nothing is ever quite sure. But this marked the moment when science took a seat sat next to these powerful mothers.

We all grew up with the evolution of that 1922 ad. The families and faces ever changing, but each ad showing Johnson babies as they were shampooed, moisturized and powered by their mothers and then eventually their fathers. Science always at their side.

Science is something the people of J&J are incredibly proud of. It’s where they’ve made their investment as a company and as people. It’s how they believe they became a leading brand. In fact, Lewis said their work created 90% of the infant skin research in the world today, established the link between scent and development, and helped them build a sleep-time line to give baby and mom a better night’s sleep.

In the 1990s, Johnson & Johnson was the #1 baby care in the world. They genuinely saw themselves as the protector of babies.

But then, consumers started to doubt them.

In the 2000s they were bombarded by negative comments about product ingredients in social media and news media. The headlines were caustic. The comments heartbreaking.

To respond, J&J turned back to their heritage: science. If a blogger said paraffins were dangerous, a J&J scientist would explain what the research showed about the safety and impact of paraffins.

But parents were hearing other influencers. They saw words on a label they didn’t understand. Then they heard from a friend or blogger that these unfamiliar things could be dangerous.

Lewis said, “we had confidence in our safety. But we underestimated how these perceptions could become reality.”

The fear, noise and misinformation made moms ask the same questions they had in the 1920: am I doing the right thing for my baby?

J&J realized it didn’t matter that science was on their side. Being right didn’t matter. Thinking it did meant they didn’t react fast enough or strongly enough.

So, they decided to step back and entirely reinvent, starting with the question: what would a start up do?

It quickly became clear that the organization had too many sacred cows. The gold color of the shampoo. The scent of the pink lotion. Etc.

To get to a blank page was scary but also liberating.

The team questioned everything from how to redesign the bottles to what ingredients to change. Every idea opened new questions: like does a bottle that works better for parents today make the product more difficult to find on shelf?

Lewis said If they put humans at the center of everything they did – just like that ad in 1922 – they would have the right starting point.

So they started with the humans at Johnson & Johnson. What drove their work every day? It was gentle. The products, the people, the way they wanted the world to be all started with that purpose: gentle. 

When they used that lens, everything fell into place. 

Next they talked to consumers -- 26,000 of them around the world – to co-create + understand what mattered to them and what didn’t.

The “ah has” starting rolling in. For example, they learned that parents hated taking their hands off their new born baby when they were taking a bath even for a minute which led to redesigned packages with pumps so that parents could give a bath always having one free hand.

They took the ingredient challenges seriously and reduced overall ingredients by half. Gold baby shampoo is no longer gold; lotion is no longer pink.

The team even decided to disclose 100% of fragrances, which previously had been trade secrets, because, as Lewis explained, “in an age of transparency, you can’t have any secrets.”

The simplified portfolio and supply chain have benefits for the company, too. It gives them speed and scale for future launces, letting them act more like a startup.

In August, Johnson & Johnson will relaunch their Baby product line with changes consumers and employee advocates have helped make. And, they’ll be ready to respond to any concerns with speed, humility and empathy. It’s a new era for Johnson & Johnson Baby.

About the Author:

As Managing Director of Innovation for Syneos Health Communications, Leigh is responsible for shaping the company’s perspective on the next era of healthcare marketing. Through thought leadership, strategic innovation workshops and new products and capabilities, Leigh focuses on identifying marketing approaches that will fuel that new era and generate significant growth for clients. Leigh has worked with Fortune 1000 companies to craft their digital, mobile, social and CRM strategies for over 17 years. She’s worked for category-leading agencies in retail, public affairs, B2B technology, and higher education. Prior to moving to Syneos Health Communications, she had several leadership roles at one of our agencies, GSW. There, she founded an innovation practice fueled by the zeitgeist and spearheaded digital and innovation thinking across the business. Leigh has taken a special interest in complex healthcare products that can change lives in meaningful ways. She was recently a strategic lead on the 3rd largest launch in pharmaceutical history: Tecfidera. Before that she had keys roles with Eli Lilly Oncology, Abbott Nutrition, Amgen Cardiovascular, and Eli Lilly Diabetes. A critical part of Leigh’s work is trends and new ideas. Every year, she convenes a group of trend watchers from across our global network to identify the shifts most critical to healthcare marketers. Leigh is a sought-after writer and speaker. Recognized as one of the most inspiring people in the pharmaceutical industry by PharmaVoice, Leigh also was recognized as a Rising Star by the Healthcare Businesswomen's Association (HBA) for her overt passion, industry thought leadership and significant contributions in new business, strategy and mentoring.