A New Spin on an Old Topic

Pharma giant Pfizer trades sentimental spots for frank talk about aging

Pfizer, like Dove and Prudential before it, has gone topical. The pharma giant’s new corporate image effort eschews gauzy TV ads in favor of a microsite (www.GetOld.com) where consumers can find and share third-party information about the vicissitudes of aging. “Get Old,” from new shop SS+K, is a radical departure for the historically conservative Pfizer, but 10 weeks in, Sally Susman, the company’s corporate affairs chief, already sees value in the approach.

Adweek: What were your objectives going into this campaign?

Susman: I knew we needed to do something different—but I should be even more precise and say, something additional. Because what we had done in the past in terms of trying to reach elected officials, regulators, some of that is very effective. But the missing element was a campaign that went all the way to the public. Does the man on the street have an appreciation for who we are? To be honest and candid, even though sometimes it’s not easy, [people] don’t.

What did your research tell you?

There was a conversation out there that people were very interested in and it really has to do with moving through the turnstiles of the different chapters of your life. The young woman who becomes a mother, that person who has the midlife moment, the elderly person leaving home for a retirement center—at these turnstiles of life people were having a conversation about what information and what support that they need to help them make that decision more productively, more smoothly. And this was a conversation on the top of their mind where they felt we might have something to say of value.

Some of Pfizer’s past corporate ads were of the lab coat variety. How difficult was it for you to sell through “Get Old” internally?

There were two elements to gaining confidence in this campaign. One was we kept the leadership advised all the way through the process. … The other thing is at Pfizer today, under the leadership of [CEO] Ian Read; Mikael Dolsten, our chief scientist; and Freda Lewis-Hall, our chief medical officer—these are really very pragmatic people who understand that we needed to do something different. We needed to do something different. And we needed to step out a little bit into a new way of engaging people. Listening more and talking less.

Were the frank lines of copy debated heavily?

There was a lot of discussion. We did a tremendous amount of focus groups inside and outside the company. And I talked to colleagues in other markets, some of whom preferred some phrasing that might have had a softer appeal, such as “live longer” or “getting older while being healthy.” Yet, when I really stopped and explained to people why we need [plain language] and how we had to show that we were taking this conversation very seriously—not covering it in flowers and butterflies, but having a very grown-up conversation about the plusses and minuses of what it really means to get old—people got it.

Did you look to other corporations for inspiration? Walmart for instance?

That’s so funny that you say Walmart because I actually talked to [corporate affairs chief] Leslie Dach about this—not about “Get old” but about the concept. And he told me how his CEO went on this listening tour, how they talked to their vendors and how they changed their inventory practices based on customer input.

At what juncture was that?

Very early. Again, it was about the concept. I said to him, “How did you guys do it? You really turned it around.” And he said, “You’ve just got to get into this listening mode.”