Can Pharma Brands Truly Be Social Brands?

Pharma brands must proceed with extreme caution when considering social media patient engagement. There’s a deluge of regulatory concerns, and the constantly shifting social landscape can’t promise the almost-sure bets of impressions and patient engagement the industry is accustomed to with more traditional media channels. Despite the challenges, a few pharma brands have stepped up to reach patients through the more tried-and-true social platforms of Facebook and Twitter.

With brands such as Gilenya and Cosentyx earning applause for their human-centric Twitter strategy and social care initiatives, and Gleevec using Facebook to help manage its loss of exclusivity, pharma brand managers and marketers now point to best-in-class social activations such as #LikeaGirl and ask, “How do we spark that kind of social movement with our patients?”

Pharma brands want to become true “social brands” like our favorite CPG storytellers that push social boundaries, but is that just wishful thinking? No.

Pharma brands can be social brands—but the most recognizable social activations today are aimed at a mass market of consumers or drive a cultural movement. They’re not meant to engage in meaningful conversations with patients who suffer from a particular health condition.

To reach the designation of a “social brand,” pharma brands need a unique manifesto to guide social media strategy in a way that takes both the patient experience and the social landscape into consideration:

Pharma Brands are Social Brands: A Five-Step Manifesto

1. Redefine “Social Movement” for Your Brand

The trouble with pharma brands pointing to #LikeaGirl as an example of a successful social movement is that #LikeaGirl is targeted to 100% of the population with a message that can resonate with just about anyone. For women and girls, it’s about recognizing and owning their strength. For men and boys, it’s about believing in and supporting the strong women and girls in their lives.

Pharma brands need to right-size their expectations from the outset. This means developing a unique definition of what a successful “social movement” would look like within your specific patient population and the behavior you can reasonably expect from them, especially given the public nature of social media and a patient’s comfort level with sharing personal health information on certain social platforms.

2. Do What Everyone Else is Doing: Tell Human Stories

Despite what we were all taught as children, sometimes you should follow what others do (unless they are running toward the edge of that hypothetical bridge). In the case of social patient engagement, pharma brands should take cues from storytelling powerhouses such as Nike.

Nike’s #betterforit campaign combined two core elements to craft a compelling story for its female athlete audience: Its brand positioning (If you have a body, you’re an athlete), and a unique human truth for the average female athlete (working out is hard and your entire mind, body, and spirit will fight against it—but it’s worth the journey). The campaign exposed the all-too-relatable inner dialogue average female athletes have during yoga, spin class, and a half-marathon—undoubtedly the product of excellent consumer research that helps position Nike as the brand that understands female athletes the best.

What’s a unique human truth that aligns to your brand and sparks meaningful patient conversation? Find that, and you’re on to something good.

3. Forget About Branded Hashtags

Twitter and branded hashtags go hand-in-hand, but they are rarely a driving factor in social patient engagement and can even become a distraction from the bigger objective of engaging meaningfully with patients. If a patient tweets something compelling about your brand but fails to use the branded hashtag, did it ever happen? You bet it did.

Find those truly meaningful KPIs for your social programs and establish benchmarks that take the pharma landscape into consideration. For example, your benchmark for view-through-rate or average watch time on social videos should take into consideration that the content you want people to watch is significantly shorter than the five minutes of ISI you need to tack on the end.

4. Put the Social Activation in Real Patients’ Hands

Thanks to Martin Shkreli, Heather Bresch, and other negative perceptions of “Big Pharma,” patients may not want to engage directly with a pharma brand on social media due to a lack of trust or human connection with the brand—despite their need for treatment and support.

This opens the opportunity to use patient advocates to engage with patients through social media, instead of always communicating at the brand-to-patient level.

5. Nurture Your Legal + Social Media Marketing Relationship

A pharma brand’s legal team is its most valuable partner in releasing a social execution out into the wild. The challenge with the relationship between social media marketing and legal is that the level of experience and comfort with social media is vastly different between the two teams and can delay or prevent approvals.

Take the time to educate your legal team about social media long before you bring a program in for approval, and collaborate with them early in the process to ensure any red flags or questions can be identified as early as possible.

Although pharma brands will never have the scale of our favorite social darling brands, they can make a real difference in patients’ lives—and that makes it worth the effort.

  • Brittany Lake

    Brittany Lake is a Senior Digital Strategist — Healthcare at Hill Holliday in Boston, MA. She helps pharmaceutical brand managers realize their “digital first” potential and identifies opportunities for meaningful patient engagement through digital and social media


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