As Americans emerge from a very difficult year, they are feeling much more favorably about pharmaceutical brands and companies than before the COVID-19 pandemic. A recent Harris poll found that positive sentiment for the pharmaceutical industry nearly doubled from 32% in January 2020 to 62% in February of this year. And that’s because, amid so much loss of life and suffering, pharmaceutical companies have stepped up by delivering safe and effective vaccines in record time—a development described as a “remarkable achievement of medical science.”

These accomplishments have forever changed the relationship between pharma companies and consumers. Indeed, Eli Lilly CEO David Ricks said the pandemic was providing a “once-in-a-generation opportunity to reset the reputation of the industry.”

This year has not just reset how people think about the pharmaceutical industry; it has impacted how they think about specific pharmaceutical company brands. We call this phenomenon the Pharma Brandemic—a time of heightened awareness and interest in pharmaceutical company brands resulting from the news and conversation about the race to a vaccine.

M Booth Health and Savanta surveyed people across the country to assess what all of this consumer interest and curiosity might mean for the future of healthcare marketing. From April 10th to April 15th 2021, we collected 1,000 responses from Americans aged 18+, using a sample that was representative to the national population by age, gender, region, and ethnicity. The findings reveal an opportunity for pharma brands to take the positive recognition they’re getting and build it into lasting relationships with consumers. Pharma is currently positioned to spark a halo effect—increasing brand loyalty for entire drug portfolios. To be successful, companies will need to change how they market drugs—and market themselves.

Doctor’s Orders May Be a Thing of the Past

People show signs of truly appreciating the differences among pharma brands. Now that Americans are getting vaccinated, many have formed direct personal relationships with Pfizer, Moderna, or Johnson & Johnson. In our survey, nearly three-quarters (74%) of respondents said they now have a preference among these. This preference does not end with COVID. It’s likely to impact which medications they take for all sorts of other medical needs in the future.

Consumers typically question the medicines that their doctor prescribes, and most pharma communications have directed them to “ask (their) doctor” if a certain medicine “is right for you.” We have all been in the room when market research is presented that corroborates that consumers have no awareness of manufacturers, much less preference. Half of all survey respondents told us that they have rarely or never bothered to find out. But those days are over.

A whopping 80% tell us that they plan to consider who the pharmaceutical manufacturer is always, often, or at least some of the time. The majority of consumers (55%) also said they plan to ask their doctor about all of their options instead of accepting the first recommendation. So, their preference for one manufacturer over another could generate significant shifts in sales.

In addition, our survey found that people are becoming more aware of and educated about pharmaceutical brands in general.

One in Three Perceive Pharma Brands like Lifestyle Brands

People have shifted their perceptions of pharma brands, and nearly half (46%) told us they want to hear from the leaders of these companies. One-in-three even said they’ve come to view these companies as similar to lifestyle brands such as Nike. They want to interact directly with the brands on social platforms and get their questions answered.

To make this work, pharma companies will need to take on some of the characteristics of lifestyle brands by engaging with consumers on social media in ways that are authentic and in real time. They need to use the media that consumers prefer to educate them about medicines and speak transparently about what they stand for as companies. Companies also need to burnish a very clear brand identity.

Consumers are emboldened. They demand health leaders and brands who will be their partners in staying healthy and safe. Pharmaceutical companies that take a page from marketers at companies such as Ben & Jerry’s, Netflix, and Google will be the big winners.

  • Julia Jackson

    Julia Jackson is Managing Director, Marketing Communications Practice lead at M Booth Health. Julia’s award-winning campaigns are based on strategic approaches fueled by insights gleaned at the intersection of people’s lived experiences and client needs.

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