The global pandemic has put a new spotlight on the pharma industry, as the race for a vaccine and the manufacture of testing kits continues to be one of the most critical stories shaping the crisis.
On the ground, supply of basic over-the-counter drugs has taken on a more urgent significance in our everyday lives. With this in mind, it has never been more important for pharmaceutical companies to connect with and be a positive presence in the lives of the people using their products.
There’s clearly a fine line here. Nobody wants to take advantage of a public health crisis. At the same time, there is a widespread appetite from consumers to understand how we move beyond the crisis. They want answers, and as developers of vaccines and medicines big pharma is the expert. The opportunity here is not about inventing new messaging to try and boost awareness while the world’s eyes are on the pharma sector. Instead it's about drawing positive attention to the good work pharma brands already do in this field, in turn helping with consumer understanding and to build more meaningful, longer lasting relationships with them. If they don’t, competitors will.
Big tech companies have been rapidly moving into healthcare over the last 12 months. Google’s deal with healthcare provider Ascension gave it access to millions of medical records across the US, while Amazon acquired symptom-checking platform Health Navigator and announced its Amazon Pharmacy offer. Now, Amazon is trialling the delivery and pick-up of at-home COVID-19 test sample kits in the US, a move which could see it rapidly expand its influence in the pharma space.
While big tech companies may not have the scale and expertise to genuinely compete - at least at first - the level of brand engagement, trust and visibility they have could prove a significant threat to the pharma sector in the long term. Pharma brands need to increase their awareness in the minds of consumers.
It’s a big challenge. Unlike the big tech brands, consumers don’t interface with the big pharma brands apart from perhaps spying a logo on packaging once in a while. Otherwise, they only hear about them when there is negative press: a recall of products or a scandal in the industry. While most consumers would probably agree that pharma brands ultimately have a positive impact on our lives, there is a cautious scepticism because they don’t really know who these brands are or what they do. For the brands in the sector wanting to change this, now - more than ever - it’s actions, rather than communications, that will win through.
Louis Vuitton, Brewdog, Gap and Dyson are some of the brands who’ve changed their production lines to create hand sanitiser, masks and ventilators. These are brands who understand brand purpose and the importance of acting on it, rather than just talking about it. The fact that Brewdog’s first batch of hand sanitiser was rejected because it didn’t meet medical standards doesn’t take away from the good will it’s won in seeking to help at a time of crisis. But for pharma brands, it’s not as simple as switching a production line from perfume or beer to hand sanitiser.
Every lab that is switched to research a coronavirus vaccine takes away important work they’re doing on another vaccines. Meanwhile, switching manufacturing to coronavirus products can affect the supply chain for other much needed drugs. Pharma companies regularly have to make these complex decisions while continuing to supply vaccines and medicines to the world and developing supply changes to ensure the right drugs get to the right people. It's the stories about the realities of the positive work pharma companies do that demonstrate the direct impact they have on our health that need to be told. Consumers are all ears as they seek to navigate a way through the crisis and whilst public health continues to remain top of mind.
As the coronavirus crisis and race for a vaccine continues, pharma brands should be thinking about ways of pairing real human examples with real measurable targets. To get this right, the focus should be on talking about the areas of their business that can win them recognition for the good work that they’re already doing, day in day out.
Victoria Langdon is strategy director of FutureBrand London