Enlisting a celebrity for a pharmaceutical brand or disease awareness campaign has long been a controversial topic. In the past 20 years alone, some high-profile missteps include: Discovery that the celebrity had no connection to the disease. Or didn’t disclose that they were being compensated. Or turned out to have a history that was damaging to the brand.

Marketers have learned from these experiences and become smarter about the best ways to engage celebrities—who are now thought of as brand ambassadors—not endorsers. They view a “celebrity campaign” today as a strategy—not an objective. While not every campaign is a home run, most campaigns today use celebrities in appropriate ways, resulting in measureable ROI that can range from increased media share of voice, website traffic, online engagement and ultimately, sales. More specific FTC and FDA guidelines about celebrity spokespeople have also helped ensure this.

Done well, these campaigns can foster a strong emotional connection between patients and your brand. Relatable celebrities who are in the target audience and offer sincere messages about their own struggles with the same condition are powerful ways to get patients to consider the brand. While marketers typically keep data about the effectiveness of celebrity campaigns close to the vest, these campaigns can significantly increase doctor conversations and scripts.

Engaging the right celebrities can also focus national media attention on your drug or disease awareness campaign, even in cases when you market one of three—or four or five—treatments for the same disease. They can capture the attention of your target audience and encourage patients to take the next step on their treatment journey whether that is getting more information on a website, getting screened or asking their doctor about a particular drug.

How To Choose The Right Celebrity

Choosing a celebrity brand ambassador is both an art and a science. Criteria such as “likeability” and demographic/psychographic research can be measured. It is important to carefully comb through media audits to uncover anything negative about the celebrity that could detract from the campaign. And you should also assess the size of their social graph.

But much of this process is more of an art. Consumers—especially health consumers—have never been savvier about being “sold to.” So it’s critical to understand whether a celebrity is truly passionate about the topic. When they talk about their health condition and the medication they take, do you feel they are on a mission to educate others? Do they care enough to co-create content with the brand or campaign? Or share content on their channels? If they have signed on for an advertising campaign, are they also willing to do media interviews?

Assess potential spokespeople by reviewing data and using less quantifiable criteria, including:

Authenticity: The biggest lesson the pharmaceutical industry has learned from past campaigns is that a celebrity brand ambassador—not their sister, cousin or best friend—must have a very clear connection to the disease. They must also connect to the brand. It is better to partner with celebrities who are actually using your brand—whether they are going to talk about it or not.

Mediability: Will the celebrity ultimately drive coverage and conversation in the media your target consumes? Are they currently working on a project? It is better when they are because it enhances their interest to the media, who then have a natural reason to talk with them.

Cost: The more “mediable” a celebrity, the higher the compensation. But look at cost as well as value in a campaign. How much is the celebrity willing to provide in time, editorial content, rights to their images and other add-ons?

Social graph: Not every pharmaceutical marketer has realized the potential of leveraging social media for their brands. But you can’t ignore the fact that most celebrities have large social presences. Partnering with legal and regulatory early in the process and developing social media scenarios, guidelines and pre-approved messages can help mitigate concerns.

A great example of an authentic campaign: The Race with Insulin campaign for Novo Nordisk, promoting the unique story of Charlie Kimball, the first licensed IndyCar driver with diabetes. Charlie relies on many high-tech tools, including Novo Nordisk devices, to allow him to pursue his passion for racing. Imagine how time consuming it would be to pull out a vial and syringe during a pit stop! Media are extremely interested in the visual appeal of Charlie’s high-tech diabetes management story—which is so compelling that TV reporters sometimes insist on showing the device on air to illustrate its benefits. Charlie and Novo Nordisk made pharmaceutical marketing history in June 2009 when they launched the first branded pharma page, @racewithinsulin, on Twitter. This campaign has not only been successful in raising awareness of the brands. It’s had an impact on sales.

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Influencers—The New Celebrity?

Charlie was not a “celebrity” before he partnered with Novo Nordisk. But a year or two into the campaign, Time magazine had dubbed him a “rock star” of the diabetes community. Which brings us to the next new frontier of celebrity campaigns. Some of the biggest influencers today are not necessarily movie stars or musicians. They are bloggers, YouTube stars and Instagrammers with a large online following who also demand far less to promote a brand. They are already heavily engaged in consumer brand marketing. Will they become the next celebrities in pharmaceutical marketing, too? It’s certainly something to consider as pharma companies get more comfortable using social media.

  • Suzanne Haber

    Suzanne Haber is Chief of Media Innovations at Marina Maher Communications. She has more than 20 years of experience in integrated marketing communications, brand building and celebrity and influencer talent procurement. Over that time she has developed innovative approaches to leveraging and negotiating with celebrity spokespeople such as Sheryl Crow, Vanessa Williams, Jennifer Lopez, Sofia Vergara, Fergie and Ellen DeGeneres.

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