From Tylenol to Toyota..Lessons in How to Handle Trouble

For years, marketers have used the case study of the 1982 Tylenol poisoning crisis as a textbook example of how to handle a product crisis. Within days of finding that Extra Strength Tylenol had been tampered with, causing 7 deaths in the Chicago area, Johnson & Johnson sent out alerts to the medical community, set up hotlines and recalled the products. An entire subspecialty of public relations developed to help other organizations respond to crises as effectively as J&J handled this one.

Fast forward to late 2009 when consumers began complaining their Tylenol smelled moldy and causes nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Unfortunately,the recalls in this instance were limited and slow in coming. Granted, it doesn’t appear that anyone has died from moldy Tylenol. Still, the brand is suffering greatly because of the perception that J&J has not moved quickly and decisively to solve the problem.

At about the same time that smelly Tylenol was making people sick, owners of Toyotas were dealing with their own product issues: gas pedals that would stick open, causing vehicles to accelerate to a high rate of speed and resulting in several deaths.  Toyota wound up recalling over 4 million vehicles because of this potential problem. Today, however, they took a huge step beyond–suspending sales of all of the models involved in the recall.

Pulling Toyota Camrays and Corollas from the market is as serious a move for Toyota as removing Tylenol was for J&J nearly 30 years ago. Many dealers are grumbling, many consumers are unhappy, and certainly everyone involved with the manufacture and distribution of Toyotas is concerned about the impact this could have on their business.

Yet it was absolutely the right thing to do. With this move, Toyota told the public that they will not allow a product to be sold that doesn’t meet quality and safety standards. That sounds suspiciously like what the J& folks did back in 1982: Doing the right thing for the public and the business long-term at the expense of short-term sales and profits. Sounds like they took a page right from the J&J playbook…the 80s version that is. Tylenol management–are you listening?

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