The Great o.b. Drought of 2010: A lesson in social media fail

I wear a lot of hats and one of those fancy toppers is as a social media strategist. Yep, not only do I spend an inordinate amount of my free time online, but I get paid to do so for my nine to five. That’s why I feel like I can speak on this with a slight air of authority – Johnson & Johnson missed out on a prime opportunity to speak to its customers via social media in regards to its O.B. Tampons. Oh yes, this is a post about tampons.

I’ve been a loyal O.B. customer for a couple of years and I’m not alone. As one writer said, “o.b.s are not just tampons. They’re iconic, representative of the branch of the feminist movement that encouraged women to become comfortable with their own bodies. (Because o.b.s have no applicator, women need to get a little more intimate with themselves when inserting them.)” According to their website, “O.B. is the only tampon in the U.S. that doesn’t have an applicator. In fact, with O.B., your index finger is the only applicator you need.” Some women would much rather use an applicator to avoid having to insert their finger inside their vaginas but many of us don’t mind.

They also fit better and seem to provide better protection. Unlike most tampons, which lengthen when they take on moisture, o.b. gets wider. I have been a fan of O.B. tampons since I was traveling in Thailand and found them wonderfully easy to carry as well as easy to dispose of (many toilets outside of the cities don’t flush). Being in New York, disposal isn’t an issue so much but I feel better knowing that there is much less waste associated with my monthly. It’s a pretty big deal to find a product you love, especially one that you have to be so intimate with. That’s why Johnson & Johnson failed, in my opinion, when they took O.B. off of U.S. shelves with little to no explanation.

Late last year, O.B. began disappearing from shelves. Understandably, women from coast to coast went bananas – wandering from Wal-Mart to CVS to Duane Reade – wondering what happened to their beloved o.b. Jezebel’s Dodai first clued us in to the so-called temporary disappearance of “ultra” absorbency o.b. tampons, which was a tragedy in and of itself. I had grown to rely on the o.b. ultras myself and was disappointed to find them gone from Duane Reade and K-Mart shelves. Turns out the ultras aren’t gone temporarily – they’re gone for good – and the rest of the o.b. line has been M.I.A. as well. WTF Johnson & Johnson?

Petitions have surfaced, comment sections and online forums are going crazy, and concerned consumers have taken to the o.b. Facebook page to vent. The situation harkens back to that Seinfeld episode where Elaine goes all around NYC looking for her beloved contraceptive device, the Today Sponge? Granted, Elaine didn’t have the ability to search for just about anything on the internet like we do today. During The Great o.b. Drought of 2010, online retailers that once sold o.b. were sold out. One could find o.b. on eBay if they were willing to pay $142.50 for four boxes (after 31 bids – that’s about $32.63 per box, approximately four times the average retail price of about $8 for a 40-pack). Do you see how much women want their o.b. tampons?

Journalists and bloggers decided to take up the issue with Johnson & Johnson but very few calls resulted in responses. When Johnson & Johnson finally did come through, their response left much to be desired. One woman reports calling the consumer help line,

They have in the past two months discontinued the “ultra” o.b. tampon. The lack of other o.b. tampons on store shelves is due to “a manufacturer issue with production and packaging.” The product is expected to be back on shelves “sometime in 2011.” So, I queried, that it could be September 2011 or February 2011 or December 2011? I was told that it would probably be Spring 2011.

In a form letter email response to inquiries about the missing tampons, Johnson & Johnson provided a list of stores where the tampons could still be found and said,

Thank you for contacting the Johnson & Johnson Consumer Companies Information Center. It is always important to hear from our consumers and we appreciate the time you have taken to contact us. Our tampons are still being made. However, it is our o.b.® Ultra Absorbency Tampons that has been discontinued. Please be assured we will share your feedback with our marketing management.

FYI, there were no o.b. tampons at those stores.

At some point, Johnson & Johnson had to give the real story, right? It’s not like a major brand to not address its consumers and the press. A spokesperson from o.b.’s parent company, McNeil-PPC, a unit of Johnson & Johnson, sent a statement to CBS via e-mail (emphasis mine):

o.b. tampons experienced a temporary supply interruption that has resulted in some stores being out of stock. We are working hard to bring supply back in line with demand and expect these stores to be restocked soon. We apologize to o.b. customers who may have been inconvenienced.

Now what is this mysterious “temporary supply interruption”? If Johnson & Johnson used social media for something besides telling stories, perhaps they could give a little insight into what’s going on with my tampons. As a social media strategist, I know the power of addressing your audience, listening to their concerns, and providing some understanding if not a solution. Not one single tweet from the company’s @JNJComm account about o.b. Their @JNJStories account made ONE canned tweet response on January 13th, “#OBTampons are now shipping. There may be a delay in reaching your area, but we are working with retailers to restock.” Johnson & Johnson isn’t answering anyone meaningfully, they’re just spouting talking points.

All of this secrecy is suspicious. Whenever there’s some shadiness going on with tampons, one immediately worries about links to Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS), a rare but very dangerous overgrowth of bacteria in the vagina. A spokeswoman for the F.D.A. told the New York Times that the agency was “not aware of any quality control or manufacturing issues with o.b. tampons.” Jezebel points to recent problems at Johnson & Johnson like citations for violations at a production plant and recent recalls but we’re still in the dark as to whether these issues are related to the o.b. disappearance. Still, even the slightest hint of a problem with a product intended to be shoved into your vagina is a problem that must be addressed straight up. So why is Johnson & Johnson dropping the ball?

It looks as though Johnson & Johnson decided to play the Ignore and Wait game until they sorted out their temporary supply interruption. Early this morning when I checked the o.b. site, the only mention of any product shortage was a message announcing the return of o.b., a little too late:

To our valued customers: o.b.® tampons are now shipping. There may be a delay of a few days or weeks to reach your area, but we are working with retailers across the country to restock store shelves as soon as possible. Please refer back here for additional updates.

There is still no good news about the ultra absorbency tampons which makes me sad. Other brands continue to carry that absorbency so I guess I’ll be switching. Judging from the comments and posts around the web, a lot of women are very upset with Johnson & Johnson. We feel like the company has not heard us and is taking us for granted. Some women have declared that they won’t be going back to o.b. and the brand has no one to blame but itself. For months women have had to find an alternative and there are plenty of other tampon brands (as well as other methods like the Diva Cup, Luna Pads, etc) ready to fill the void – no pun intended. I truly believe, however, that had Johnson & Johnson addressed the concerns of their LOYAL customers quickly and honestly using one of the best customer service tools we have available today – social media – women might have found a temporary substitute, but perhaps they would have returned to o.b. in the end.

  • matador1015

    In case studies of crisis management, the way to success is to address the issue with the public swiftly and decisively. Luby’s Restaurants, in the reaction to George Hennard’s 1985 shooting spree in one of their cafeterias, is a very good example. I suppose J&J is reading from BP’s disaster management book.