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Branding the pandemic: What the big pharma brands should do next

The pandemic has catapulted big pharma brands like Pfizer (NYSE: PFE), AstraZeneca (LSE: AZN) and Moderna (Nasdaq: MRNA) into foreground of public imagination like never before. While they have been making well-known consumer healthcare brands for years, they have only now themselves become household names. This presents a huge opportunity for their future growth.

It’s an opportunity for them to lose some of the mistrust that’s plagued them for decades and become a more human presence in people’s day-to-day lives. To do this, they need to align themselves more closely with growing values in contemporary consumer behaviour such as transparency, humanity, and empathy. For a sector that’s kept its corporate distance, striking the right tone here is critical.

Here is what big pharma brands should do next:

Unilever Free The Birds
1) Turn transparency into a way forward, rather than a barrier

For the first time ever, consumers now have an appetite to get to know the big pharma brands behind the over-the-counter medicines they buy and will make choices based on their perception of them. These brands should be thinking about how to use transparency to build trust and authenticity through their newfound public image by telling some of the real stories behind the products, their origins, development time, and the people creating them.

The very idea of opening up more is enough to make most legal and regulatory teams in pharma companies turn pale. However, perhaps they can find inspiration from Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan, where a special ‘U’ logo on products assures customers that they are making the right choice for the planet. This initiative allowed the consumer giant to demonstrate a greater degree of transparency in the sustainability of its products without necessarily revealing huge detail. Finding the balance will be key.

Bayer Free The Birds
2) Align with the growing trend of self-diagnosis and self-care

In line with growing trends in wellness, nutrition, and self-care, consumers are increasingly taking healthcare into their own hands. As this continues, big pharma brands will no longer be able to hide behind their products and instead need to be recognisable, respected, and relatable household names that consumers turn to when managing their health and wellbeing.

Familiar consumer healthcare brands such as Calpol and Bepanthen have already built stronger connections with consumers by being more relatable to their everyday health needs. Now, as developers of vaccines and medicines during a global crisis, consumers will look to big pharma brands as remedial leaders too.
Digital technologies and the use of machine learning in pharma have the potential to help here. For example, Bayer is partnering with digital health company One Drop, whose programme is aimed at managing diabetes and prediabetes, with recent expansion to high blood pressure and high cholesterol patients. Initiatives like this allow big pharma brands to become an everyday supportive presence in consumers’ lives.

GSK Free The Birds
3) Show that you care beyond the 'moment of need’

Consumers often perceive pharmaceutical brands as relying on people being ill, not being well, which goes against the more holistic approach to health that’s growing in popularity. The pharma brands that champion proactive approaches to keeping well – like managing mental health, immunity, sleep, and diet – will become top of consumers’ minds. Big pharma brands should be actively talking to the public about public health concerns, projects, and progress that they’re involved in, and even open their business to innovation around managing public health concerns in new ways.

GSK created a digital app called Breath of Life to raise more awareness of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). A collaboration between a leading pulmonologist and a well-known artist, it used the traditional Chinese art form of blow painting to measure patient need. While relatively niche, the example shows how big pharma corporations can build their public profile by being visibly committed to achieving progress within public health, instead of fading into the background.

Health Free The Birds
4) Be braver with naming and language

Most big pharma brands don’t sound like brands you want to get to know or have a conversation with. None of them have struck the balance between language that meets legal and efficacy requirements with having a good ‘bedside manner’. They could get away with this pre-pandemic, but with consumers now listening to big pharma brands in unprecedented ways, now is the time to get this right.

Previously struggling with a bad reputation, the name ‘Pfizer’ is now associated with being a world saviour. So why would the brand risk removing ‘Pfizer’ from its vaccine name? Its new name, Comirnaty, mashes up community, immunity, mRNA and COVID. It is meant to evoke community but creating a word that most people wouldn’t know how to pronounce alienates the brand from consumers.
Now is the time for big pharma brands to talk and interact with people in a more human way – otherwise the very real and huge human impact they’ve had on our lives risks being diluted and clouded.

Skin Free The Birds
5) Learn from the small fish

Health-tech start-ups are agile, have a purpose hardwired into them from the beginning, and can achieve cut-through with more daring branding, products, and services. While big pharma brands can’t compete on the same terms, they must learn from the refreshing tone of voice, positioning and branding that is catching the eye of consumers via social media and digital platforms as people become more conscious of which pharma brands to choose.

Joining the trend of bespoke skincare solutions, Skin+Me is a subscription service offering personalised skincare products through online consultations with experienced dermatologists. With bold positioning and bright colours, the DTC brand is attracting a young market who prefer to manage their health and find solutions themselves. While big pharma companies cannot offer home delivery, they can implement similar brand design strategies and partner with small health start-ups to reach and engage new consumer groups.

All these strategies require significant – but essential – shifts in mindset if pharma companies are going to take the opportunity to accelerate their growth and reach in response to the irreversible changes that Covid-19 has brought. Now is the time to engage the public in new ways and build on years of improving people’s wellness.

Paul Domenet – Partner & Creative Strategy Director 

This article first appeared in the The Pharma Letter

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