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.”

Dove and Prudential have tackled larger issues, with “Campaign for real beauty” and “Bring your challenges,” respectively. Did they also inspire you?

We definitely talked about the Dove “Real beauty” campaign as we were sitting around the conference table considering this effort. I really admire that campaign. As a woman (and a woman with a teenage daughter), [I liked] the idea that bodies are real, and [getting] an honest interpretation as opposed to an airbrushed interpretation of life is much more interesting.

What kind of feedback have you gotten thus far?

I had a phone call with Dr. Linda Fried, who is the head of the longevity center at Columbia University and the Mailman School of Public Health. She told me she thinks “Get old” is fascinating. She invited me to come up to her office, sit down, talk to her and share ideas about aging.

Other reactions that stand out?

On the day we launched this there were 15 nationwide news stories that gave us strong national coverage and put it out on the blogosphere and through online channels and it was received with very little cynicism. And I had expected there to be some cynicism. … The fact that people looked at it and didn’t immediately assume some kind of negative overly commercial interaction on our part was a great sigh of relief and a wonderful thing to experience.

Is that because this isn’t tied to any specific product or linked to a selling message per se?

Two things. One is that it isn’t product-driven and secondly, the tone. And I really credit SS+K for the tone because it isn’t arrogant, pushy or self-important. I’d like to just add one more thing and that is we’re working closely with and relying heavily on our chief medical officer [Lewis-Hall]. She’s the personification of these characteristics we’re talking about: warm, inclusive, humble, funny, irreverent and caring.

How will you evolve this campaign?

We’re sort of letting it marinate a bit. What are we really hearing? What do the communities want from us in terms of information, support or resources? Take the time to respond in a really thoughtful and smart way.