Aligning Trust and Transparency in Brand Messaging

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Pharmaceutical ExecutivePharmaceutical Executive-12-01-2022
Volume 42
Issue 12

Whether pharma or FDA, healthcare outreach more visible than ever.

In today’s world, companies face increased scrutiny from a host of stakeholders like investors, customers, employees, policymakers, and media. And with the myriad of ways to consume news today, visibility is at its peak.

Transparency, accountability, and trust are being addressed now more than ever throughout all industries—diversity, equity, and inclusion and environmental, social, and governance initiatives being top of mind. Ignoring an issue until it goes away, or inaction, is considered an action, one that can infer or inform where a company or entity stands as perceived by consumers or by current or potential employees.

According to a 2020 study, the “Edelman Trust Barometer,” 70% of consumers said that trusting a brand is more important today than in the past. Further, 81% of respondents said personal vulnerability around health, financial stability, and privacy is a reason why brand trust has become more important; and 74% indicate a brand’s impact on society is a reason why brand trust has become more important. The 2021 version of the study revealed that the US, already in the bottom quartile for trust worldwide, continued its downward trajectory, indicating people have less confidence in societal institutions—business, government, NGOs, and media.

In 2021, Pfizer and Moderna took to social media, radio, and even late-night television to address vaccine hesitancy. Under emergency use authorization, specific unbranded products were not allowed to be advertised; thus, fair balance wasn’t required. But with Pfizer and Moderna being the only real options, it wasn’t difficult to figure out the vaccines were being advertised. As corporate pharma brands, they are first of their kind. COVID-19 vaccine profits would have been record-breaking without advertising at all, but amplifying the brand was smart business. 2021 saw Pfizer record overall prescription drug sales of $72 billion, with $37 billion from its COVID-19 vaccine, Comirnaty, alone.

Since the vaccines were made available, Pfizer released two “unbranded” television spots. In recent months, the first Comirnaty branded spots appeared: “Hard on Everyone,” targeting teens after approval for the age group; and “More,” which addresses getting back to normal. Both ads, as required, provide fair balance by listing potential side effects and benefits equally, as reviewed by FDA.

Enter the agency. On Oct. 17, FDA posted a meme on its Instagram account that shows SpongeBob getting out of his chair with the text: “WHAT’S THAT? YOU’RE NOT BOOSTED? IGHT IMMA HEAD OUT.” The question begs, who is the intended audience?

It’s established that the vaccine doesn’t stop infection or transmission but helps with severity of infection. Yet, FDA doubled down on Nov. 7 in an Instagram post: “YOU’RE NOT BOOSTED? YOU’RE KILLING ME SMALLS!”—this time deploying “Ham” from the popular 1990s kid’s movie The Sandlot.

Recent variants don’t carry the same virulence as variants past, and most lack concern, as evidenced by the 10% uptake of the bivalent COVID-19 vaccine. Is FDA an entity designed to protect citizens or one that serves as a marketing arm?

There have been other events, including:

  • On Oct. 30, the CDC’s advisory committee on vaccines voted unanimously (15-0) to add COVID-19 vaccines to the childhood immunization schedule.
  • Thus, the vaccines received full liability protections under the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986, and then later that same day, Pfizer raised its cost-per-dose by 400%, ultimately to be paid for by insurance companies and the government.

Three weeks prior to the vote, Pfizer partnered with Marvel on a comic eBook, “Everyday Heroes,” and posted on their social feeds to remind readers to: “Vaccinate and stay up to date with the latest recommended booster for you and be an everyday ‘hero.’”

These events have me wondering about the limits of brand trust around COVID-19, whose job COVID-19 vaccination awareness falls to, and where advertising limits lie. In an industry that is highly regulated and has always straddled the fence of being profitable vs. altruistic, this is alarmingly unregulated. The pharmaceutical industry is full of actual heroes that strive for the greater good. Ironically, it’s also an industry that struggles to keep an image of integrity intact. Transparency and trust are two pillars that the industry must continue to embrace through its sales and marketing efforts as well as its actions. Yet, messaging from pharma companies and federal entities like FDA has become muddled. How will this impact trust?

Fran Pollaro is a senior editor for Pharmaceutical Executive and can be reached at fpollaro@mjhlifesciences.com.

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