A Blog by Jonathan Low


Feb 26, 2021

Why Covid Vaccines Are Big Pharma's Last Chance At Reputation Repair

One third of Americans don't take medicines they have been prescribed because they can't afford them. 

The industry is mistrusted and disliked more than any other because it is perceived to take financial advantage of those  who need medications. Covid vaccinations at no or low cost may be the industry's best - and last - opportunity to forestall price regulation. JL

Robert Klara reports in Ad Week:

A ranking, based on polling data, of how Americans regarded various industries (reveal) the lowest went to Big Pharma, with 58%  saying they had a negative view of the industry. Americans mistrusted pharmaceutical firms more deeply than advertising and the government. Ratings for the pharma industry have never been lower since Gallup first polled on industries in 2001. Over the last 19 years, few industries have rated lower. A third of Americans skip prescription medications because they can’t afford them. A majority think Congress’ No. 1 healthcare priority should be “constraining prescription drug prices” - for which 75% blame pharma companies.

On Dec. 8, 2020, a 90-year-old woman sat in a high-backed chair at the University Hospital in Coventry, U.K., and entered the history books.

Her name was Margaret Keenan and, on that chilly Tuesday, she became the first person on the planet to receive a vaccination for Covid-19. Asked for a comment from the BBC, Keenan—due to turn 91 the following week—said that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine she’d just received was the “best early birthday present.”

In a broader sense, that media-saturated needle prick in Coventry was also a very fine present for Pfizer and, by association, the other biopharmaceutical firms currently engaged in producing coronavirus vaccines or testing them. Indeed, no sooner had Piers Morgan mentioned Keenan’s fateful inoculation on Good Morning Britain than public feeling toward Pfizer and BioNTech swung into positive territory, according to data compiled by social-listening and analytics firm Talkwalker.

These are heady times for the biopharmaceutical industry, certainly in terms of the financial gains to be made from vaccines but, perhaps more significantly, also from the marketing and PR value of having developed them. Not since companies like Merck and Eli Lilly joined forces to produce Dr. Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine in the mid 1950s have Big Pharma brands had the opportunity to bask in the glow of heroism as they do now.

And it is a glow the industry needs very badly.

In September 2019, Gallup released a ranking, based on polling data, of how Americans regarded various industries. While the restaurant business enjoyed the highest public esteem, the lowest regard went to Big Pharma, with 58% of Americans saying they had a negative view of the industry. Americans mistrusted pharmaceutical firms more deeply than they did advertising and even the federal government. In fact, “Americans’ net ratings for the pharmaceutical industry have never been lower since Gallup first polled on industries in 2001,” the report stated. “Over the last 19 years, few industries have been rated lower.”

A rare opportunity

Industry watchers say, however, that 2021 is presenting a rare opportunity to notch that rating upward. Among them is Bain & Co. partner Jane Gonnerman, part of the firm’s healthcare practice.

“The work that the pharmaceutical industry has done has been remarkable,” she said, noting that the race for a Covid-19 vaccine is a shining example of how Big Pharma “has done quite a bit to help the country.” As a result, she said, we are coming upon a “once-in-a-generation opportunity for the industry to elevate the message and continue [to stress] the positive effects of the extraordinary work they do.”

Americus Reed, marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, concurs, to a point. “My guess is it would be an opportunity,” he said, but “it would be a very tricky thing to do right.”

The complexities are many. First off, of the scores of pharmaceutical companies out there, only three—Pfizer, BioNTech and Moderna—actually have approved vaccines in distribution right now. Formulations by AstraZeneca, Sanofi and Novavax remain in trial stages, while Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine may get the FDA’s green light as soon as this weekend.

But the bigger obstacle is simply that, in terms of public regard, the deck is stacked heavily against the industry.

“I have a strong intuition that no matter what the pharma companies try to do, they’re just not going to overcome that [negative] perception,” Reed said. “There’s been a reckless war on Big Pharma for years, driven in part by politicians and public policy advocates to rein in costs because of angry cries for constituents. And this was most grossly personified by the guy that’s in prison now.”

The old villains

Reed was referring to Martin “Pharma Bro” Shkreli, the disgraced former CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals. Shkreli made world news in 2015 by jacking the price of the HIV drug Daraprim from $13.50 a pill to $750—an increase of 5,500%. The move earned Shkreli the moniker of “most hated man in America” and made him the poster boy for everything Americans felt was wrong with pharmaceutical companies. (Specifically, Reed said, that they are “price gouging and … just evil.”)

It didn’t help that Shkreli, who is currently serving a seven-year prison term for fraud, surfaced again last May when he asked to be released from his cell so he could develop a cure for Covid-19.

Concurrent with the drama surrounding Pharma Bro, however, the industry was also beginning to deal with the public’s mounting fury over its role in the opioid crisis. Then, of course, there is the older and more recalcitrant bugaboo of cost. Two years ago, a survey by GoodRx found that a third of Americans skip taking their prescription medications because they can’t afford them. And a 2019 poll by Hart Research found that a majority of Americans think Congress’ No. 1 healthcare priority should be “constraining prescription drug prices”—prices that 75% of respondents blame the pharmaceutical companies for.

A slow build

The good news for pharma brands is that the public’s perception of them is improving, if slowly.

According to a data from Morning Consult, the pharmaceutical industry’s net favorability with the public stood at 22% last February, just as Covid-19 was taking root in America. As of this month, it’s now 26%. Consumers’ trust in Big Pharma this time last year was 19%, a number that has since climbed to 24%. These scores are hardly commendable, but they are inching upward.

One reason why might be that the retail cost of Covid-19 shots isn’t part of the conversation. As of December, the federal government had dumped over $12 billion into the development of six promising vaccines. It’s why Peter Maybarduk, director of consumer-advocacy group Public Citizen, famously referred to Moderna’s vaccine as “the people’s vaccine.” The shots going into Americans’ arms right now are “free,” since tax dollars have already paid for them.

And with these favorable winds blowing, Big Pharma has tentatively lifted its sails and launched a few advertising campaigns.

Last summer, for example, Johnson & Johnson aired “Behind the Mask,” a spot showing scientists in white lab coats toiling away on a vaccine. Around the same time, a spot called “In Common” debuted from the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. It, too, showed scientists in white coats and hairnets staring intently at rows of test tubes, one of them telling the camera that “we’re making great progress because we’re collaborating in ways we’ve never done before.”

But the most visible effort belonged to Pfizer.

Pfizer takes the lead

In April 2020, the 172-year-old pharmaceutical giant launched a minute-long spot called “Science Will Win,” which landed with a big splash amid the maelstrom of coronavirus fears and conspiracy theories. “The entire global scientific community is working together to beat this thing,” the crisp baritone voiceover assured viewers, reminding them that science had beat pandemics before and would do so again.

In January, Pfizer followed this effort up by retiring the blue oval logo it’s used since 1950 in favor of a “ribbon helix” that “visually represents our desire to go forward honoring our storied legacy, while committing to scientific breakthroughs.” The announcement of the new logo contained the observation that “the biopharmaceutical industry [is] currently at an 18-year reputational high.”

And so, Pfizer seems to be striking while the proverbial iron is hot.

“We recognize this moment as both an unprecedented opportunity to increase the public’s confidence in the industry and an enormous responsibility to continue to deliver on the promises of science,” Pfizer’s chief corporate affairs officer Sally Susman told Adweek. (AstraZeneca and Moderna did not respond to Adweek’s requests for comment for this story.)

The foreseeable future

While marketing like the kind launched last summer may well have helped improve public perception of Big Pharma, some experts suggest a better opportunity is ahead.

Reputation management expert David E. Johnson, CEO of Strategic Vision, believes Big Pharma should consider doing a “victory lap” once everyone who wants a vaccine has gotten one.

“What I mean is some praise for themselves, saying, ‘We were there. We stepped up to get America rolling again,'” he said. “If they’re smart about it, that’s how they’ll do it. They won’t go overboard, but they’ll say, ‘We faced a challenge, and the most important thing was finding a cure.'”

Margot Bloomstein, principal of brand and content strategy consultancy Appropriate Inc., agrees. “Consumers don’t need another ‘talk to your doctor about’ ad campaign that rattles through medical legalese and lacks context,” she said. “Shared context is important, because never before have pharmaceutical companies and consumers been able to relate through so much common experience—and smart companies should start there.”

Yet, even if Big Pharma does start there, it might take even more than bringing an end to a pandemic for some consumers to feel warmth toward the industry.

“While people will be happy to get the vaccine, I am very skeptical of the idea that it will meaningfully change public perception of Big Pharma for the better,” said author and noted crisis-management guru Eric Dezenhall. “At best, I think it may lead to a temporary cessation in punitive hostilities at the legislative and regulatory level.”

“My hypothesis,” added Reed, “would be that the pharma companies are so deep into the reputational deficit that even this [vaccination effort] is going to be like very small drops in the ocean.”


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