Results of the recent Harris Interactive corporate reputation study, reported in today’s Wall Street Journal (see “Ranking Corporate Reputations“), place pharmaceutical companies low on the overall reputation totem pole (only tobacco companies ranked lower).

That’s not news.

What *is* interesting is the consistent high ranking of Johnson & Johnson in this survey over the years. It stands out among pharmaceutical companies. According to the WSJ article:

One company has shown particular consistency. Johnson & Johnson has had a lock on first place since the survey began in 1999, successfully dodging the bullets fired at other pharmaceutical companies. It scored well for the quality of its products and for emotional appeal because of people’s warm feelings about its baby-products business. It also received the highest scores for being ethical and trustworthy. J&J “is as American as Mom and apple pie,” one respondent commented.

Merck, on the other hand, slipped to 45th place (out of 60), which is down from 32nd place in 2003.

So why did J&J do so well?

Primarily by staying out of the public eye. If you look at some other results of the survey, you find that J&J ranks very low (56th place) on “media coverage recall.” Only 21% of respondents say they recall mention of the company in the media in the past 12 months.

Merck Could learn a Lesson or Two
Another piece of advice was offered by one survey respondent who suggested that J&J “should just keep quiet about pharmaceuticals.” Perhaps Merck should consider that advice as well and stop running its “Patients Come First” ads.

Here’s another way Merck could redeem itself. The aforementioned ads portray Merck as the company that defeated childhood diseases with vaccines. Another article in today’s WSJ talks about NIH investing in start-up (i.e., risky) biotech companies to help them develop a new anthrax vaccine, which would help us in case terrorists try to use anthrax as a WMD against US citizens.

NIH gave away $877 million dollars to a company that failed to produce the vaccine on schedule.

Why doesn’t Merck — by its own account a proven vaccine development leader — come forward and develop and manufacture anthrax or other needed vaccines? Yes, it will lose money, but not as much as it will lose in VIOXX cases because it cannot find sympathetic juries!