This is the first post in a two-part series on reputation management in the pharmaceutical industry.
Recent polls and surveys demonstrate that the pharmaceutical industry’s reputation continues to be plagued by negative perceptions. While there have been some signs of improvement here and there over the past few years, many consumers still consider pharma’s reputation to be on par with the tobacco industry, positioning one product category that treats cancer just above a product category that causes it. A survey released in March 2017 by PatientView, a U.K.-based organization that researches patient groups globally, revealed that the drug industry’s reputation took a hit in 2016 following a five-year period of progress.
It’s no surprise how the pharma industry got here, what with PBMs, the media, the U.S. Congress and others bashing the industry for its price increases, profit margins and direct-to-consumer advertising spending, not to mention the actions of a handful of bad actors. The question is, why hasn’t the industry—and individual pharma companies—done more to counteract negative perceptions and to paint the industry in a more positive light?
To get some answers, discuss thought-provoking marketplace analogs, brainstorm potential solutions and highlight some good work that’s already under way, I recently sat down with Jeanne Ryan, a principal of marketing and growth strategy consulting at ZS with more than two decades of experience working on marketing and brand strategy for B-to-B and B-to-C brands. She has contributed to reputation management initiatives from both the client side and the consulting side, having worked for organizations including Keebler and Reckitt Benckiser, and at top brand consultancies including Prophet and Landor. Here are some excerpts from our conversation. In my next post, Jeanne and I will dive a bit further into potential solutions.
Pratap Khedkar: From your perspective, in reputation marketing, what are some of the challenges standing in pharma’s way? Why is pharma so hesitant to own its narrative?
Jeanne Ryan: First, in industries that have a negative reputation for whatever reason, companies tend to shy away from proactive reputation management and prefer, instead, to fly under the radar. Second, there’s a lack of understanding. I’ve heard many pharmaceutical industry insiders say that no one cares about the company that a drug comes from. They only care about the drug itself. It’s true that having a good product is critical, but it’s absolutely not the only thing that matters.
For example, in the CPG space, yogurt company Chobani is known for more than its popular product. The company is frequently lauded for its social responsibility and for treating employees well. Chobani’s strong reputation has shielded the company from food quality issues and a recent defamation lawsuit. The company’s reputation management efforts have been strong from the start, and they’ve helped the company weather recent storms and still retain premium shelf space in grocery stores. It seems like it’s to the point where if there’s only one yogurt sold somewhere, it’s always Chobani.
The same idea holds true in the pharma space, and our research backs this up. Our latest Oncology CX Tracker study, an oncology customer experience survey that we’ve conducted for two years, shows that a good product is necessary for a positive customer experience but that it’s not sufficient on its own. On a stated basis, oncology customers—the healthcare providers we surveyed—will say that the product accounts for about one-third of the overall experience, and that reputation, support services and people each account for another 20% of the experience. But on a derived basis, the product dropped to only 20% of the experience, and reputation, support services and people all increased and proved more important overall to the experience than the product itself.
PK: PhRMA, the industry’s lobbying group, launched its “Go Boldly ” campaign in January and they’ve been more aggressive in counterattacking PBMs with ads targeted at patients who are paying high out-of-pocket list prices despite payer and PBM discounts. Some pharma CEOs have cautioned against going after the PBMs, but transparency should apply to all players. Hospitals and PBMs have a lack of transparency when it comes to pricing. For example, as a patient, you don’t know how much your hospital profits from you, either. Either way, there are signs that the industry is beginning to act on its reputation, but is it headed in the right direction?
JR: The work being done by the overall industry is a good start, but each individual company, and frankly each individual franchise within a company, has a very specific story to tell that could improve its business. Big pharma companies should focus their energy on the corporate reputation, but small pharma companies should focus on their franchise reputations or being well-known in the individual therapy areas they serve. It’s not just about having good products, but also having an unparalleled physician experience, considering the patient experience and being perceived as a leader. The smaller companies can get more from their overall activities in that space versus just selling their products alone.
We could pull some lessons from financial services. Nearly a decade after the mortgage crisis rocked the United States, the banking industry’s reputation has been on an upward trajectory. Governance, products and services, and innovation rank high in shaping the public’s renewed perception of the banking sector. Even with individual company’s missteps, like Wells Fargo’s troubles this year, the industry’s reputation as a whole seems to continue to improve.
PK: If you were advising a reasonably large pharma company that’s worried about corporate reputation, what are three or four things you would advise them to do specifically? Is it about message, investing in brand building or making sure physicians and patients are happy and letting the general public’s perception take care of itself?
JR: Those are all potential solutions, but companies do need to focus first on making sure that physicians and patients are happy, and they can’t just do brand building.
Each company is going to be in a different place and require a different approach. First, I would recommend that the pharma company identifies which drivers—products, patient services, physician services, corporate citizenship, company performance, company leadership, etc.—are impacting its reputation. Is it an awareness or familiarity issue? Are the products perceived strongly by customers?
And what type of experience is the company delivering to physicians? Our oncology survey found that physicians are 70% more likely to prescribe drugs from companies that deliver a positive experience than those that don’t. More companies need to think about the experience that physicians have and think about what services are missing that could make the experience more positive.
While physicians prescribe the drugs, patients are exerting more and more influence over their healthcare. Some pharma companies understand this and have embraced the patient, designing communications and services tailored to their needs. We’ve found that effective medication initiation support, including nurse representatives and adherence programs, can help drive reputation at a product’s launch.
PK: It seems like there’s more of an opportunity for pharma companies to be patient-centric in their external messaging efforts, as well. In some pharma companies’ offices, you’ll see posters featuring stories of real patients that explain how the companies’ treatments have positively affected patients’ lives and the lives of their loved ones. The posters obviously are intended to help employees better understand their brands’ positive impacts on their end users, but it seems like pharma companies potentially could find a way to leverage messages like these externally, as well—while being mindful of FDA and FTC guidelines and regulations on patient endorsements, of course.
HCPs sometimes feature patient testimonials in their advertising, and such peer reviews can have a powerful impact on the public’s perceptions of organizations’ reputations. Can pharma join hands with other stakeholders in the healthcare industry to improve their reputation? Is there any merit to the idea that, since health happens for the patient only when all of these stakeholders actually work together, they should do something jointly as healthcare stakeholders, or is that a pipe dream?
JR: What you just described would be incredibly impactful, but it feels a little like a pipe dream. Designing marketing activities from the viewpoint of the end user will always have the greatest impact, but the patient is just thinking about healthcare in general. She doesn’t consider each individual company that provides the medications she takes, and she thinks of the hospital as separate from the pharma company. If pharma could find a way to tell the whole healthcare story to patients, it would be incredibly powerful.
In any industry, the actions of one company can affect the public’s perception of many, and bad news tends to travel faster and farther than good news. In the pharmaceutical industry, companies should start focusing more on bolstering their reputations now, increasing the public’s awareness of all of the good that the companies do—and how it’s done—and nurturing the public’s trust in, and appreciation for, pharmaceutical organizations and offerings. Find ways to create a dialogue around your company’s objectives and innovations, and to educate the public about the pivotal role that your organization serves in improving patient health. It’s time to start investing in active reputation management efforts and turning the tide of public perception.
Stay tuned for the second blog post in this series of two, which will be published next week.