Pharma Has Lessons to Learn About Consumer Engagement

Kathryn McMahon Arrigg

The healthcare industry is going through enormous amounts of change, and recently, branding firm Siegel+Gale conducted a survey to take a gut check on the public’s perception on some of the changes. The company surveyed 1,100 consumers in the United States and United Kingdom, who rated the services provided by primary-care physicians and specialists, pharmaceutical companies, health insurers, hospitals, and pharmacies by evaluating three categories: putting patients first, empowerment and access, and science and innovation.

One particularly interesting takeaway from the survey is that consumers view pharma companies as "the brains of the healthcare industry," and when asked what an "ideal" pharmaceutical company could do that today’s other players could not, consumers responded "the ideal pharmaceutical brand has a strong emphasis on people."

As the internet and social media continues to promote transparency and communication across all industries, pharmaceutical companies have struggled to keep up with the movement. It is necessary, however, that companies work to make more of an emotional connection with consumers outside of the doctors and patient groups that they work with on a regular basis. It is vital that pharma companies begin to showcase their focus on people by creating a two-way dialogue with consumers beyond just advertising—in other words, engaging patients.

Social media has opened plenty of doors for pharmaceutical companies to bridge that gap. Despite the highly-regulated nature of this industry, brands are slowly embracing Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest and even Instagram. But there is still room for improvement. According to a study by the IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics, only 10 of the 50 largest pharmaceutical companies leverage the top three social media platforms – Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

It is understandable that pharma companies may be reticent to create that dialogue due to regulations and the sensitive nature of the industry. But given how often patients turn to social media for answers and support in today’s day and age, pharma companies are missing a large opportunity by not leveraging social platforms to engage and highlight the very human side to the work that they do.

One company that seems to connect well with consumers is Johnson & Johnson. Families like mine have grown up with brands like Band-Aid, Tylenol, Q Tips and J&J’s baby powder. The company has been able to form more of an emotional connection with consumers than companies like GSK, Novartis, Merck who do not have strong CPG businesses. Also, because the marketing of consumer products is less regulated, J&J is given more freedom and flexibility with its advertising and social media campaigns, and currently has a whopping 73,000 twitter followers on its main handle (@JNJNews).

Other pharmaceutical companies are trying. For example, Novartis’ ‘Long Live Life’ campaign attempts to humanize the company in an employee photo sharing content which collects images that capture what motivates and inspires Novartis employees to work towards saving lives every day.

The bottom line - in today’s day and age, consumers want to connect and identify with brands. There is a strong desire to do so with the pharma companies who they perceive as the driving force behind the healthcare industry. Despite a tentative start, pharmaceutical companies are slowly but surely taking advantage of the tools at their disposal in order to give themselves a more ‘human’ identity. The companies who will be the most successful at engaging consumers are those that are transparent, genuine and let their brand identify shine through.

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