The pandemic forges pharmaceutical brands into better shape

By Michael Dumigan, Global Brand Consultant, THE PLANNING SHOP

Emotional empathy is driving brand equity. People coming together.

Day by day it becomes clearer that some brands are coming through the
pandemic in better shape than ever. These are the brands that have
clearly demonstrated emotional intelligence, that have shown emotional empathy to their target audience. They understand the current, heightened emotional state of their customers and respond to it in ways that show they give a damn.

Sometimes it is just about style and tone: like a mother’s soothing words to a
crying child that create immediate comfort and calm. Sometimes they go further, and like that same mother applying a soothing balm to a grazed knee, show by their action that they care.

The emotional wave of the moment is all about reliability, the calm in the
storm, the trusted friend. Think of the sourdough craze or the social media
frenzy around banana bread: in these times of unprecedented uncertainty in relation to life’s fundamentals – health and livelihood – we are reaching out for the warmth of a well-worn comfort blanket.

Simple kindness is one such comfort blanket. Something we want to receive
and something we want to give. Each of us is touched by the countless acts of community kindness being shown to the vulnerable. We see the dedication of healthcare workers – or of the shelf-filler in our local store – and we are moved to thank them and to make our own contribution.

Non-pharma brands leading by example

Something was broken before Covid-19 came along. The 2019 Edelman Global Trust Barometer showed levels of mistrust in business to be stratospheric, at their highest point ever. Government and the media didn’t fare any better. Of these three societal pillars, it is, perhaps surprisingly, business that has stepped up to the plate most assuredly in 2020 – led by some of the world’s strongest brands.

Brands are contributing in myriad different, relevant and engaging ways. T-Mobile went into partnership with Verizon, AT&T, and iHeartMedia to give 40,000 phone chargers to hospitals, putting frightened, isolated patients back in touch with loved ones. Verizon also donated $2.5 million to small businesses to support the Local Initiatives Support Corporation and has offered special prices for nurses and teachers. These are acts of kindness appropriate to both the brands and the situation.

Kindness starts with colleagues. Starbucks extended its mental health benefits for members of the team. In partnership with Lyra Health, Starbucks offer personalized, confidential mental health care, free in-person or video sessions, and access to a provider network of mental health therapists and coaches. Microsoft keeps on paying support staff who earn an hourly wage even when there’s nothing much for them to do.

The pandemic is global, so let’s take a quick peak at some beautiful
examples from around the globe.

Big pharma surprises itself

The pharmaceutical industry, often depicted as public enemy number one, has (with a gargantuan leap into the future), seemed to catch the public mood and respond appropriately. There is a scale difference in this transformation.

Look at the Harris pole quoted in Fierceparma on 2nd September: when asked about all pharma companies in general, regardless of whether they are working on a vaccine, 71% overall said the pharma industry is a trustworthy source. The highest-ranked sources in the poll were local doctors and nurses, trusted by 88% on average. The well-known hospitals and scientist categories tied for second at 84%. Still, pharma has come a long way over the course of the pandemic.

In 2017 Pfizer was one of the top ten US donors of charitable aid, to the tune of a staggering $210million (or 1.7% or profits) according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, yet still, the organisation doesn’t even appear on the 2019 Axios Harris poll of top 100 reputation ranking. In 2018 the research firm Reputation Institute ranked Pfizer’s reputation at rock bottom on a list of 22 pharma companies – and none of them ranked highly against other sectors!

The data isn’t public yet but today Pfizer holds its head up high and talks
about reputation openly and assuredly: clearly confident that there has been a change and that there is more to come. How did that happen? Pfizer has shown remarkable emotional intelligence at a corporate brand level.

The change is local and global. To take one local example, in the UK Pfizer
is working with the National Schools Partnership to make its Superbugs and
Vaccines education program suitable for home learning. Over at corporate HQ, the ambition is as big as it gets, of the moon-shot order in fact, when it comes to defeating Covid-19. Pfizer has four different mRNA platform vaccines in play against one-another: a radical new approach for them. Their chief, Albert Bourla, quoted in Forbes magazine in May, made the new way of thinking and working crystal clear to his team:

“Think in different terms…Think you have an open cheque book…Think
that we will do things in parallel, not sequential. Think you need to build
manufacturing of a vaccine before you know what’s working. If it doesn’t, let
me worry about it and we will write it off and throw it out.”

He was clearly impressed with the way his team responded to the challenge, saying:

“How fast we moved is not something you could expect from big, powerful
Pharma. This is speed that you would envy in an entrepreneurial founder-based biotech.”

Sharing is caring

From the beginning, Bourla openly authorised having discussions and sharing proprietary information with rival firms. A brave move in the often closeted, secretive world of big pharma. Bourla made Pfizer’s manufacturing capabilities available to small biotech concerns and is in talks to make large quantities of other companies’ Covid-19 drug candidates. 

One Pfizer brand getting plenty of attention is Xeljanz, their blockbuster
anti-JAK rheumatoid arthritis pill that could damp down the massive immune response that overwhelms some Covid-19 patients. Pfizer is supporting a Xeljanz trial in Italian Covid-19 patients, as well as a U.S. trial that will test a different arthritis medicine, an experimental drug that targets the Irak-4 protein, against the virus.

It is not just Pfizer though: we’ve simply highlighted them because of the
low levels of trust the wider community has had in their brand, and because they’re now a great example of what the industry is doing to rebuild brand trust. There are many other mega pharmaceutical companies in the kill-Covid game: Johnson & Johnson, Sanofi, AstraZeneca, GSK and Roche included.

Here’s a mini roundup:

There is one final example that convincingly tells us that trust has become
immensely important to pharma companies: Chinese clinicians are using an AbbVie HIV treatment to address coronavirus-related pneumonia. Kaletra (also known as Aluvia) contains anti-viral components that block virus replication. Although not yet approved as a treatment for coronavirus, Kaletra has shown efficacy across multiple trial cases.

AbbVie has donated $1.5 million worth of Kaletra to China for use as an
experimental treatment option.

Kaletra is vital to AbbVie’s commercial success, yet the Company has given
up some of the brand’s commercial potential by announcing in April that it
wouldn’t defend patent rights to Kaletra. In the event that Kaletra does prove effective against COVID-19, the move would allow competitors to create additional supply to satisfy demand that AbbVie alone can’t meet. That is an astonishing move of generosity that can only inspire admiration and trust.

There are emotions other than comfort and trust

The pandemic has given brands, including pharmaceutical brands, the
opportunity to demonstrate emotional empathy by responding to the need for confidence and trust with clear demonstrations of caring. The power of emotional connection has never been clearer. For the moment, the successful brands are the ones that understand the universal emotional tide of the moment. In the future, these brands will need to strive for a differentiating emotional connection.

This is a big ask. There are very few pharma brands not built with an emotional component, but that component rarely has foundations anywhere near as deep as the functional core claim. The generic nature and lack of ownability of the emotional component is clear, if you recognise these four emotional foundations, then you know the problem: