Branding Takes on a New Look

Pharmaceutical Executive, Pharmaceutical Executive-01-01-2022, Volume 42, Issue 1

Pharma moves beyond promoting products to increase recognition of company names.

Before March 2020, many potential developments and trends discussed in the pharmaceutical industry in relation to sales and marketing were slow-tracked or met with good old-fashioned resistance. When the pandemic hit and the world stopped, implementation of these stifled potentialities accelerated quickly. The first to come to mind are virtual interaction and digital adoption. In addition, a trend less predictable came to the forefront: Certain pharma corporate brands rose to prominence and entered everyday consumer badge-brand conversations alongside household heroes like Apple, Microsoft (PC), Amazon, Netflix, Nike, etc. These are brands that now have certified street cachet, even though pharma corporate brands failed to crack the world’s most extensive brand equity study Kantar Brandz™ top 100 this past year—a study composed of nearly 4 million consumer interviews covering 18,500 brands across 512 categories in 51 markets.

While it seems as if the rise was initially more of an accident than a conscious decision in this case, the question remains: “Will pharma companies continue to run with the exposure or fall back on other more traditional approaches like product branding?” It’s likely a bit more complicated than that, of course.

In an effort to release society from the COVID-19 shackles, the development of mRNA vaccines was fast-tracked and lauded as an incredible achievement and potential liberator and savior. Because products can’t be branded before FDA approval, it’s safe to say that Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) catapulted three corporate brands into the spotlight of American consciousness: Pfizer, an industry behemoth and logistics/testing partner for BioNTech, a vaccine developer; Moderna, a compact single-focused upstart that wasn’t generating much revenue prior to the pandemic; and Johnson & Johnson (J&J), perhaps the only pharma corporate brand that had any significant amount of brand recognition in the United States, thanks to its consumer products. Many people can still conjure memory of the cursive logo on a box of Band-Aids or baby powder.

By default, the EUA vaccines became the Pfizer vaccine, the Moderna vaccine, and the J&J vaccine, respectively, and for better or worse. At this point, it’s worked out quite nicely for Pfizer and Moderna, while potentially damaging the J&J brand. Then again, with J&J’s recent strategic split of consumer and pharma/medical device businesses, it might be a case of any publicity being good publicity. Time will certainly tell.

But for the time being, Pfizer, the leader of the pack, forecasting $36 billion in vaccine revenue for 2021 in its Q3 financial statement, is advertising its corporate brand like never before, sponsoring several media outlets’ morning and evening programs, sports, and weather, and appearing in late night skits, social media, radio spots, and TV commercials. Even though Comirnaty has been approved, its brand recognition is nearly non-existent, and Pfizer is staying the course with ads that don’t mention the patented product and, in turn, have the advantage of not displaying fair balance—“Don’t Miss Your Shot” is the latest TV spot, starring Brooklyn Nets’ player Bruce Brown. Today, people wear their Pfizer, Moderna or J&J badge proudly, which is a phenomenon that’s never really existed in the history of corporate pharma brands. It must be something to build on.

Pharm Exec reached out to Beth Beck, a member of Fingerpaint’s leadership team, who commented, “When it comes to branding in general, in the past, a classic brand manager dealt with simpler branding structures. Now, many companies have not only multiple products but also several therapeutic areas/divisions. If you also layer on the complexity of a fragmented and complex healthcare market, there is a greater need to consider overarching brand architecture. Over the past several years, at Fingerpaint, we are seeing more and more pharma companies adopting an approach to divisional marketing—meaning Company X Oncology or Company Y Immunology. This type of divisional branding helps build credibility. It paves the road for pipeline products. It allows companies to sell a technology or platform. And, it can attract talent.”

The general idea in the past was that adverse reactions or issues associated with a certain product might hurt the overarching corporate brand, which makes sense considering the high stakes of dealing with life, death, well-being, and illness. Today, there’s a lot of talk about the empowered patient/consumer. These people, armed with the internet and a sincere interest, want to know where their medications are coming from and what the corporate brand behind these products represents. If there’s an issue, a quick Google search will reveal all, so is there a point in concealing the corporate brand anymore? If you think about it, mega blockbusters like Humira and Keytruda are only really recognized by healthcare professionals (HCPs), payers, and patients, when they could have brought positive brand recognition to AbbVie and Merck, respectively, even if only for the years remaining on the patent. The corporate brand has been nearly invisible to the vast majority of consumers—surely, that shouldn’t be the case going forward.

Pharm Exec turned to Christina Falzano, managing director of Conran Design Group, for an opinion:

“I think the increased prominence of corporate pharma brands is likely to continue even after the pandemic wanes in a couple of ways. Corporate brands can act as a stamp of quality and reassurance giving confidence to stakeholders (patients, caregivers, payers, HCPs, investors) in a new drug or indication. Alternatively, corporate brands can benefit from the halo associated with breakthrough and blockbuster drugs. In some instances, I think we will see the connection made explicit through an endorsement model (X Pharmaceutical Drug by Y Pharmaceutical Company), while in others I anticipate the connection being less direct, perhaps being implicitly suggested through the use of connected elements in the corporate and product brand identities: similar or shared color palettes, typography, or design elements, or even naming conventions.”

As we move through 2022, Pharm Exec will eagerly keep an eye on the market to see how this all plays out. At base, pharmaceutical companies don’t have the ability to capture the attention of every single customer like a Nike, for example, who is looking for customers with feet; they’re more limited in scope and about targeting certain groups of patients for specific conditions. That said, the spotlight gained by Pfizer, Moderna, and J&J will likely not be overlooked. In some shape or form, expect corporate brands to be more involved in the future in order to gain an edge.

Fran Pollaro is a Senior Editor for Pharm Exec. He can be reached at
fpollaro@mjhlifesciences.com.