What should the big pharma brands do next?

The pandemic has led to big pharma brands being catapulted into the foreground of public imagination like never before. Today, almost everyone has an opinion on those involved in the vaccine race.

This new exposure presents a huge 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.

As someone who’s witnessed the inner workings of pharmaceutical brands via my father’s job in Novartis, and someone who’s made a career out of crafting the narratives for brands big and small, I have a particular interest in seeing how this plays out. While these companies have been making well-known consumer brands for years, they have only now themselves become household names. This presents a huge opportunity for their future growth.

Here is my take on what big pharma brands should do next:

1.) Turn transparency into a way forward, rather than a barrier

Perhaps against their will, Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Moderna have seen their brand names become centre stage during the pandemic. As we progress beyond it, they could choose to return to the shadows or – as I would suggest – capitalise on this new level of exposure. While pharma brands may be used to dealing with B2B relationships and not having to worry about public image, there is no going back from the level of practical and emotional impact these previously unknown brands have had on millions of ordinary people around the world. Consumers are now curious – probably for the first time – about which big pharma brand is behind the over- the-counter medicines they buy and will make choices based on their perception of them. So, it makes sense for big pharma brands to build on their new-found public image.

For the pharma industry, this must seem easier said than done. The very idea of opening up more is enough to make most legal and regulatory folk in these companies turn pale. However, maybe now is the time to work out how to start telling some of the real stories behind the products, their origins, development time and the people creating them. This would foster a level of openness and authenticity that consumers crave and expect.

Pharma companies can find inspiration in Unilever, which boosted its reputation during a crisis as people increasingly questioned the origin of its products. To gather the respect of the public, it elevated its focus on sustainability and launched The Sustainable Living Plan, using the ‘U’ logo on its product range as a brand promise they are the right choice for the planet.

By doing this, the consumer giant demonstrated a greater degree of transparency in the sustainability of its products without necessarily revealing huge detail. Finding the balance will be key.

2.) Align with the growing trend of self-diagnosis and self-care

In line with growing trends in wellness, nutrition and self-care that we have seen for decades, 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 well- being. Consumer healthcare brands such as Calpol and Bepanthen, which are more open to the public, have built stronger connections with their consumers. More pharma brands should follow suit and be transparent how they play a part in our healthcare management.

As developers of vaccines and medicines during a global crisis, consumers will now look to big pharma brands as our remedial leaders. The opportunity here isn’t about inventing new messaging to take advantage whilst 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 turn, it’s helping with consumer understanding and building meaningful, longer lasting relationships.

Digital technologies and the use of machine learning in pharma have the potential to transform the value chain – from drug discovery, to self-diagnosis and ongoing patient management. 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.

3.) Show that you care beyond the ‘moment of need’

Building on the last point, consumers often see pharmaceutical brands as relying on people being ill and 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 be the ones top of consumers’ minds.

When it comes to what this could look like, big pharma brands could actively talk to the public about public health concerns, projects and progress that they’re involved in, and even open up their business to innovation managing public health concerns in a way never done before.

GSK created a digital app called Breath of Life to raise more awareness of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Breath of Life was inspired by the traditional Chinese art form of blow painting and was the result of a collaboration between a leading pulmonologist and a well-known artist. By exhaling a deep breath, the app uses the COPD metrics of the simulation of blow painting a tree. It visualises a person’s breath in the form of a blossom tree: the smaller the tree, the more help the patient might need.

While this is a relatively niche example, it shows how instead of allowing their brands to fade into the background, big pharma corporations could actively use their identity as symbols of progress and commitment to public health. It may take a significant shift in mindset and tough internal conversations, but it could be exactly what the pharma industry needs to do to build on its new public- facing reputations.

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 has 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, Pfizer is now being heralded as a world saviour. Not only has it ‘won’ the vaccine race, but it has won the hearts and minds of the public too. So why would the brand risk removing ‘Pfizer’ from its vaccine’s new name?

Recently announced, the new brand name for Pfizer’s and BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine, Comirnaty, mashes up community, immunity, mRNA and COVID – pretty much everything that could fit into the name for the world’s most high-profile product. The new title is meant to evoke community but creating a word that most wouldn’t know how to pronounce alienates the brand from consumers.

This is symptomatic of the use of language across the whole industry and again, it would be okay in a pre-pandemic world where nobody knows who Pfizer is. But this has changed. 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. This would be a great shame.

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 as people become more conscious of which pharma brands to choose.

Joining the trend of bespoke skincare solutions, UK’s 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. The ease of an online medical form attracts the busy professionals, as the brand removes all barriers and delivers straight to their homes.

Big pharma companies cannot offer home delivery for medicine, but they can implement similar brand strategies, and partner with small health start-ups to offer their products and reach to a new and engaging consumer group.

COVID-19 caused a major shift in people’s perception towards the pharma industry and there’s no going back. Even though it might seem counter-intuitive for big pharma companies to capitalise on this mindset shift, now is the time to engage the public and build on years of improving people’s wellness.

Paul Domenet is partner and communications creative director at Free The Birds