Johnson & Johnson’s Brand Falters Over Its Role in the Opioid Crisis

At the same time that its supply units were processing opiates, Johnson & Johnson’s pharmaceutical subsidiary was promoting its own products in what was becoming a hotly competitive market for narcotic painkillers. The company, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, marketed Duragesic, a fentanyl-based patch, and Nucynta, a painkiller that it sold off in 2015.

Its marketing tactics followed a similar playbook to one Purdue and other opioid manufacturers were employing, and also included so-called unbranded promotion, which was not tied to specific products and encouraged doctors to continue to prescribe more opioids.

Like its competitors, Johnson & Johnson sought to persuade doctors that pain was under-treated, training sales representatives to use “emotional selling” to get across the idea that patients were being harmed by undertreatment. Another concept was “pseudoaddiction,” or the idea that if patients were asking a doctor for higher doses, they were not necessarily addicted but needed more of the drug to treat their pain.

The company has said it acted appropriately and that, ultimately, drugs are prescribed only on the advice of a doctor.

Still, researchers have repeatedly found that drug marketing can influence the behavior of doctors. “This sort of marketing can tilt the balance,” said Dr. Scott Hadland, an addiction specialist at the Grayken Center for Addiction at Boston Medical Center, who has studied the link between drug industry gifts to doctors and overdose deaths. Doctors “are human just like anybody else and they are affected by marketing.

Johnson & Johnson has cultivated its reputation through decades of careful messaging and product management, said David Vinjamuri, a marketing consultant and professor who worked at the company in the 1990s. Doctors and hospital administrators were more inclined to trust Johnson & Johnson over other pharmaceutical companies, he said.

But in recent years, given its setbacks, “my fear now is that the systematic competitive advantage Johnson & Johnson got from its reputation has eroded,” Mr. Vinjamuri said. “Brand equity is a reservoir that floats you until it’s dry.”