Welcome to the New Face of Big Pharma

On eve of Obamacare, brands shift marketing from pill pusher to best friend

Justin, a 12-year-old with Type 1 diabetes, just started middle school and was bummed he had to regularly check his blood sugar between periods while his pals rushed to the next class. It’s exactly the kind of everyday problem that drives parents of diabetic kids batty. But Justin figured out a solution by inventing a game called “Fantasy Diabetes,” modeled after Fantasy Football. Fourteen of his classmates promptly signed up, and twice a week they gather around Justin after class, guess what his blood sugar is going to be before he tests it, and earn points for the best guess.

Justin’s mom suggests the idea to other families, not in a diabetes support group but via Spoonful.com, created by Disney Publishing and pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly, a producer of insulin and diabetes drugs. Spoonful.com doesn’t look at all like a pharmaceutical website. Rather, it is punctuated with playful branded stories, games and tips to help young diabetic patients and their families manage the disease.

Welcome to the new world of Big Pharma marketing. Millions of citizens will sign up next year for health insurance under Obamacare (officially the Affordable Care Act, or ACA)—that is, if it isn’t defunded in the latest budget showdown in Congress. That, coupled with the public’s growing distrust of drug companies, is forcing a radical transformation of pharmaceutical branding. “The era of Big Pharma and the marketing of the magic of a pill is gone,” says Kate Cronin, global managing director at Ogilvy CommonHealth PR. “Now, pharma brands are about everything that surrounds a pill, including services, disease awareness, education and prevention.” (Nearly half of U.S. healthcare marketing execs in a Ogilvy CommonHealth survey this year agreed that the heyday of Big Pharma is history.)

Drugmakers are transitioning from pushing pills to insinuating their corporate identities into our daily lives—to the point consumers could feel them getting a little too close. They’re filling their bags of marketing tricks with health and lifestyle content, cool mobile apps and educational outreach. “The ACA gives big pharma brands such as Lilly, Merck and Pfizer the opportunity to become [household names] in a patient-centric, partnership-driven way,” says Fred Geyer, partner at Prophet, a brand consultancy. “Since patients with chronic disease are playing a larger role in treatment decision making, we clearly need to engage with them more at a corporate level,” adds Kevin Cammack, senior marketing director at Lilly Diabetes.

The biggest target for this next-gen branding approach are patients dealing with the dangerous trio—obesity, diabetes and heart disease. There’s serious ad spending on the table. Pharma marketers laid out more than $2.7 billion on consumer marketing in the U.S. last year, per Nielsen, and that’s after hefty cuts in TV ad and sale rep budgets. Pharma’s total spend last year on consumer and business-to-business marketing and sales hovered around $11 billion, according to an Ogilvy CommonHealth survey.

It’s a challenging pivot for companies that are massive, traditional and cautious, warns Geyer, but industry executives privately acknowledge that they really have no choice. Still, they must contend with growing consumer skepticism over their motives. Last year, only 56 percent of consumers said they trusted the drug companies, according to Edelman. With the exception of a single player, Johnson & Johnson, the reputation of the industry continued to plummet in 2011, and the standing of two major pharmas—Pfizer and Merck—went from neutral to poor, according to research by Prophet.

Shifting Role

Healthcare reform and the ACA may seem like a confusing quagmire of new rules to the average American family, but Big Pharma sees three simple elements in the law that could upend the industry.

First, the ACA will result in primary care doctors becoming quickly overloaded as millions of people buy insurance and enter the system. Doctors, nurse practitioners and medical assistants will need help, and pharma companies can offer assistance. In return, the drugmakers can gain deeper understanding of their consumers and get a chance to boost consumers’ flagging trust.

Merck’s educational and marketing program MerckEngage is a good example of what to expect. It’s a website that offers registered members free personal health tracking, daily planners, food and exercise tips, email messages, and content updates. Tucked between lists of healthier fast-food choices and videos on preparing for a doctor’s visit are popular features including interactive tools that inform users how many calories they eat, drink and burn each day, and trackers that monitor blood pressure, blood sugar, weight, cholesterol, migraines and asthma symptoms. Doctors who sign up with Merck receive regular updates of their patients’ activity. Since its launch in February 2010, the site has attracted 8.2 million visits, according to a Merck rep. This year, the program added mobile versions for both patients and healthcare providers. Since April, a mobile site has attracted about 102,000 visits.

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