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Johnson & Johnson turn to influencers for help in reaching Gen-Z shoppers

November 16, 2021, 6:28 PM UTC

The breakup of Johnson & Johnson will test the power of celebrity as its consumer business turns to influencers—not care providers—to pitch beauty and wellness products.

So it shouldn’t surprise anyone if Tylenol or Listerine start popping up in TikTok videos and Instagram posts.

“If you think about how folks purchase consumer health products today, it’s often dictated by maybe a celebrity influencer who has a social-media campaign that used the product that worked really well for them,” Joseph Wolk, J&J’s chief financial officer, said in an interview. “The individual feels a connection there.”

The new potential marketing approach shows the different paths management is plotting out for its businesses after the pending split, which is set to happen over the next two years. The non-consumer operations, which specialize in drug development and medical devices, will continue to connect with customers primarily through health-care providers, Wolk said.

J&J, founded about 135 years ago, already boasts a medicine cabinet-worth of household-name products, from Band-Aid to Benadryl and Neutrogena to Neosporin. That means the New Brunswick, New Jersey-based company might not even need the push from social media. After all, many people just buy more J&J bandages when they run out.

But the pandemic has given a boost to many over-the-counter drugstore products, and J&J says it wants to further capitalize on the trend. The $15 billion consumer entity, Wolk said, still has “a little bit of room to run.”

‘Attractive markets’

The consumer business today consists of three units: Self Care, which includes over-the-counter medications; Skin Health and Beauty, which includes skin-care products, shampoos and hair-loss products; and Essential Health, which includes Listerine, baby products and women’s health brands.

J&J is particularly bullish on self-care and skin care, Joaquin Duato, who’s poised to replace Alex Gorsky as chief executive officer in January, told investors last week: “Those are high growth, highly attractive markets.”

The pandemic supercharged a trend toward skin-care products, as locked-down shoppers with nowhere to go turned to self-care. That came largely at the expense of makeup, which saw sales plunge with the rise of mask-wearing. 

Cosmetics companies have been an important part of influencer-based marketing, as beauty content found a natural home on image-and video-based platforms like YouTube, Instagram and TikTok. The market is poised to grow: Spending on influencer marketing in the U.S. is expected to exceed $3 billion in 2021, according to data from market research firm eMarketer.

J&J has already used celebrity pitch-people including Jennifer Garner and Kerry Washington across its consumer brands, and it’s signing younger faces to appeal to Gen Z shoppers. The Neutrogena skin-care label last year brought on 24-year-old Lana Condor and 19-year-old Jenna Ortega. In September, the brand had its first campaign on TikTok, starring musicians Chloe and Halle Bailey.

Duato said the standalone company will further increase its digital presence and double down on e-commerce investments, using analytics to reach “under-penetrated markets.”

Harder sell

While beauty companies such as L’Oreal SA and Revlon Inc. have created the influencer blueprint for cosmetics found in drugstores, the right promotion tactics for J&J’s less-glamorous products, like antibiotic ointment and mouthwash, may prove harder to decipher.

Just take a look at an Instagram post this week by J&J’s Pepcid antacid brand. It quotes a food influencer saying “I love being able to enjoy my favorites, like this Spicy Chicken Chili Oil Wontons dish, without the interruption of painful heartburn symptoms.” It has just 31 likes.

Yet there’s significant potential in marketing essential products through influencers if done right, said Danielle Wiley, CEO of influencer marketing agency Sway Group. Recommendations from peers can be powerful, even for the most pragmatic items.

“It’s probably not the super-glamorous Instagrammer who’s going to be taking on that work, but we find that those programs are super compelling if you find the right message,” Wiley said. “The reality is we all need Neosporin and a lot of people need mouthwash. These are products that people are using.”

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