Vilifying the pharmaceutical industry has long been considered an acceptable public sport. The criticisms have been wide-ranging and near universal at times, with both sides of the political aisle taking their shots. Hollywood movies feed into and perpetuate the systemic belief that Big Pharma comprises evil executives hell-bent on taking advantage of the American consumer-patient. And critics like to point to the fact that pharma innovations have slowed while many “me too” drug sales seem healthy and robust.
In a Gallup poll published last Fall, the pharmaceutical industry was ranked as the worst industry in the US—regarded less favorably than all others, including the oft-maligned industries of oil and gas, law, and the federal government. In fact, the four lowest-rated fields were advertising and public relations, the healthcare industry, the federal government, and—pulling up the rear—the pharmaceutical industry. Personally, it’s sobering to realize that as a healthcare marketer, three out of four of these reviled sectors are directly related to work I not only believe in, but to which I have dedicated more than 30 years of my life.
But then, along came a virus, which led to a pandemic that for all intents and purposes is holding the world hostage and will likely continue to do so for the foreseeable future. And suddenly, people all over the globe are depending on the embattled pharmaceutical industry to play a vital role in the future of…well, our future. Big Pharma—and those of us on its periphery—are starting to be viewed in a very different light as the push for a COVID-19 cure has borne extraordinary innovations in record time, remarkable acts of corporate giving, and turned the healthcare industry on its head. Could it be that the villains are now becoming the saviors?
The demand for companies to band together to create life-saving meds in a crisis isn’t unprecedented. In the early years of WWII, President Roosevelt put a call out for the mass production of penicillin to help prevent infection and save those wounded on the battlefield. Nineteen companies stepped up and one—Pfizer, then a fermentation company—came forward with a way to mass-produce the “miracle drug.” Some might argue that this is perhaps when the seeds of Big Pharma began in earnest.
With all of the positive contribution pharma has made over these last 70+ years, how and when did we end up losing favor? There are very real, scathing and justifiable criticisms that can be traced back to the industry; bad eggs like Martin Shkreli, incidents of life-saving meds not being covered by insurance due to their excessive cost, and the origins of the opioid crisis arguably traceable back to prescription drugs. But how did it get to the point that these issues ultimately overshadowed the greater good that the pharma industry has contributed during the last century to advance the health and well-being of consumers? How did we become so focused on marketing the medicine that we neglected to recognize there was a need to better market our industry?
In the era of COVID-19, the pharmaceutical industry is working day and night to simultaneously find treatments for the virus, a vaccine or even a cure, and the eyes of the world are laser-focused on it. There is a higher level of responsibility and expectation than ever before and the hope for our collective future now lies firmly in the hands of biopharma scientists, researchers and technicians. Tides are turning—reports suggest that consumers are now viewing the pharma industry with new regard, with 40% of the people who responded to a recent Harris poll looking to pharma with greater trust, perceived authenticity, and a more positive view of the industry than they did before the pandemic began.
Where pharma companies must do the heavy lifting in finding the holy grails of treatment and cure, healthcare marketers have a part to play, as well. We’re in a unique position to help foster and build upon the positive momentum that this industry is creating. Unlike our marketing colleagues whose clients are in the “want-based” categories of automotive, entertainment, or hospitality, we have the privilege and charge of working within a need-based category. “Health” is an industry that will never go out of style and won’t be as influenced by fluctuations in the economy as companies and brands in those other categories. Our job is to do everything in our power to create more connectivity, utility and value through our work as the industry’s loudest voice.