The Pharma Brandemic
How COVID-19 Vaccines Have Changed Healthcare Marketing Forever

Published on April 29, 2021

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Written by Julia JacksonJulia Jackson is Managing Director and Marketing Communications Practice Lead at M Booth Health and believes conversations and connections can improve health for people everywhere.

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Written by Mark WestallMark Westall leads Research & Planning for M Booth Health and believes online health conversations offer crucial clues for helping people prevent illness and treat disease.


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Read the full video transcript below:

Mark Westall:

It’s important to recognize that the COVID-19 pandemic has taken more than 3 million lives globally and almost 600,000 in the US. We’ve all made massive changes in our lives to protect our families, our friends, ourselves, and many of us have lost loved ones. Even before we knew much about the virus, the pharmaceutical industry stepped up to find a solution, and thus began the race to a vaccine. And thanks to the efforts of these scientists and executives, we are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. And we have the opportunity to glean insights from the way people responded to that race. And as they are right now in real time. And that’s what we’re here to talk about.

We want to share the findings of our survey of a thousand Americans, and it explores two core areas that we’ll be going through today. The first one, how COVID vaccine brands have entered the cultural zeitgeists in the last six months. And secondly, the impact that this has had in how Americans now think, not only about pharmaceutical companies and drug brands, but in how they plan to manage their own health in the future, too. Now, to give you an idea of what we mean when we say, “COVID vaccine brands entering the cultural zeitgeist,” we’d actually like to start with a recently aired clip from the Seth Meyers show.

I’m sure that we can  appreciate many of the inside jokes that are in that skit. But take a moment to think about what you’ve just seen. That’s a comedy sketch broadcast, by the way, to 11 million viewers across broadcast TV and on social media, on a mainstream TV show, featuring four different pharmaceutical brands. And speaking about them positively. It’s unheard of, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. In the last six months alone, COVID vaccine brands were featured on Saturday Night Live, not once, but twice, to 20 million viewers, and memes featuring COVID vaccine brands and TikTok comparison videos have exploded. There are even pharma brand micro-communities forming across those that have had the vaccine, like #TeamModerna and #PfizerGang. To say this is unprecedented would be an understatement of epic proportions.

And to put this into perspective, we actually calculated the total number of engagements that there have been with posts around COVID vaccine brands across YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok in the last 12 months. That number is 1 billion engagements. And that’s just from posts that have been tagged with Moderna, Pfizer, AstraZeneca, and J&J alone. In reality, that number is even higher and growing by the second. And this level of awareness and engagement has thrust pharmaceutical brands into the limelight in a new phenomenon that we are calling, if you haven’t guessed it yet, a Pharma Brandemic, which we define as an epidemic of heightened awareness and interest in pharmaceutical company brands. A direct consequence of COVID-19 vaccine brand news and conversation.

Julia Jackson:

So just how real is this Brandemic? This month we partnered with Savanta, which is an independent research company, to find out. That survey was of 1,000 demographically diverse and representative Americans across all different psychographic groups to understand just how real the Brandemic is and what impact it’s having now and will have in the future. So, what we found out was that 61% of Americans say the pandemic has made them more aware of pharmaceutical brands overall. That’s not just the vaccine brands, that is pharma overall. What’s more exciting to me as a marketer is that more than half of Americans have said that the pandemic has made them aware of differences between the pharma brands. So, not only are they more aware of the brands, they’re more educated on what makes them unique and different from one another. So, who’s coming out on top in this Brandemic? We did unaided and aided research questions.

Of course, we all know that unaided is the crown jewel. We’ve all been in those CEO suites when we were talking about unaided awareness, and not surprisingly, J&J, Pfizer, Moderna, and AZ came on top, hands down. What’s fascinating is that there’s this halo effect that we’re seeing with CVS, Walgreens, and Walmart. And we suspect that that is because these were the first commercial distributors of the vaccine and these were the first to really raise their hand. Now that we’ve talked about sort of the crown jewel, we wanted to see what it would look like from an aided perspective. Again, not surprisingly, J&J, Pfizer, Moderna, and AZ are all top five. Bayer is an interesting outlier here. What we think this probably has to do with is really OTC brands and consumer brands, but we did notice that the more involved the other brands were, like Merck, in the development of a COVID-19 vaccine, the higher they came up in terms of aided awareness.

This is all fascinating, and it’s exciting to learn this in a very scientific way. What is hugely exciting to me, as a pharma and healthcare marketer, is this idea of rising positive sentiment around pharma. Harris did a poll, and in January of 2020, 32% of people surveyed said they had a positive view of pharma, which is about what we would expect, right? Just a couple of months ago, that number skyrocketed, almost doubled to 62%. I’m sure that some of you have shared this struggle, but years of being a pharma marketer and going up against this image of Big, Bad Pharma, this shift is starting to demonstrate what we’ve known all along: And that is that pharma is responsible for many of the biggest innovations. And that should at least be understood, if not, appreciated. Consumers aren’t just more aware of pharma brands, they like them a lot more too.

Mark Westall:

That raised awareness and sentiment is great news. But of course with more positive awareness and sentiment comes heightened expectations and a taste of preference. In fact, we’d actually like to invite you, our viewers, to engage a bit here. Because on that note of preference, we’d like you to have a guess and answer the question. What percent of Americans do you think have a preferred COVID vaccine brand? So, go ahead and select your guess now.

So, we’re just seeing the results start to roll in now.  When we got our survey back from a thousand respondents, 74% of Americans say that they have a preferred COVID vaccine brand. Think about that for a moment. At a time when any vaccine offers a path back to the normalcy that we all crave, 74% are saying that they have a preferred COVID vaccine brand—there’s a staggering number. And on the top of those three, Pfizer is the clear leader. J&J of course, lags and that’s recently impacted by the pause of their vaccine.

And I should say that our study, so hot off the press, was in the field when that pause happened. And so what we’re going to do is actually look at the data and see how that changed over time. But that’s why you see the lag there, but Pfizer is really driving the boat here. But what we wanted to understand, most importantly, is what is driving that preference. Now, Americans say that efficacy, positive study data, fewer side effects, and safety are really the top three reasons for brand preference. This is what we would expect to see. After all this is a life-saving drug. Ultimately, these will always be the reasons why. Spending a little bit of time just on J&J, an interesting outlier, the convenience factor of the one and done nature of the shop and trust that consumers have with the other consumer-facing products helps those issues come up.

That of course is bound to change now with the product pause happening. But the main point we want to look at here is what we’ve highlighted in the blue box, there for Pfizer and Moderna, the sort of positive news story, and someone I know posted about having this vaccine on social media. Both of which, by the way, ranked higher than being recommended by a medical professional. So, what you’re seeing here is how this huge level of media coverage, combined with consumers sharing their experience with these brands on social media, has directly influenced preference for something, which when you think about it, should really only be about whether or not the drug works safely. But as we’ve seen, as these pharma brands have been thrust into the limelight, it’s changed the way consumers heading to vaccination centers today are thinking about them, or rather shopping for them.

Vaccine brand shopping, that’s how Quartz characterized it just last month. As consumers look to the news, social media, and even their friends to determine which potentially life-saving medicine they should take, this behavior and this conversation behind it has intensified rapidly in just the last few weeks alone. As these comparison conversations have taken place, even online influencers have weighed in. And I draw your eyes to the image on the right there that may be familiar to fans of the TV show Succession, that’s because one of the main actors who plays the gangly, likable character Greg, is posting on his Instagram channel, wearing a Pfizer jacket saying, and I’m directly quoting here, “Pfizer gang, Pfizer gang. You’ve got to represent your facts.” And it’s these kinds of posts, mimicked and  picked up on by the everyday American, that have helped facilitate the notion of what we put in a title here, Vaccine Elitism. And even Pfizer becoming, what Slate called just last weekend, by the way, in their article, “Status Backs.”

Now that’s all well and good, but we want it to put some data behind this. So, we actually went online and we looked at what the level of conversation around this is. To what extent are people actually wearing or indeed wrapping their backs in this way? And what we found was that there are more than 10 million instances of Americans using tags like #TeamPfizer, #TeamModerna, #PfizerGang. And there’s one very clear winner, Pfizer is dominating the vaccine brand pride game, as we call it on social, 8.6 million engagements, dwarfing Moderna, AZ, and J&J. Now of course, the first-comer advantage is huge there, but that role of the influencer and the online conversation we’ve just seen has just taken it to another level. But make no mistake, pharma brand preference isn’t just real, it’s taken a form, as we’ve just seen with that influencer posts to be replicated by so many, it’s taken a form that’s more akin to a fashion brand online, but don’t just take our word for it.

Just last week, Lindsey Leininger, who’s a Public Health Scientist at Dartmouth, said this, “Brand preference is very real and it’s very prevalent. We in Public Health need to make some time to actually listen to them, them being American consumers, as opposed to just brushing them off and looking at these behaviors as something that’s just going to pass.” Well, we did listen. And in our survey, we looked to understand, to what extent is this kind of brand preference dialogue that we’re seeing play out online, actually impacting how consumers are starting to see pharmaceutical brands.

And so we asked ourselves and our respondents, if consumers are wearing that pharma vaccine brands in this way, how is this impacting how they think about pharma brands overall outside of these vaccine brands? And the answer that really did make us kind of sit up outside of our chairs and take notice was this, one in three Americans say that as a result of the pandemic, they now see pharmaceutical brands, more like lifestyle brands, like Nike. And so what we’re seeing here is that pharma brands are entering the cultural zeitgeist, dominating the news and discussion among friends, in a way that’s normally reserved for pop culture events or for lifestyle brand launch events. It’s changing the way that a significant proportion of Americans are thinking about these pharma brands all together.

Julia Jackson:

And when consumers start thinking about and seeing pharma brands in the same way that they see sneaker brands, they want to change their interactions with pharma brands and interact with them the way that they would at Nike or a Coca-Cola. So in our survey, we asked respondents how they wanted to engage with pharma brands, and they told us that they wanted to hear from leaders. That nearly half of Americans agreed that they want to hear from leaders of the pharma brands more often in the future. Now here, you’ll see an example of a Pfizer exec behind a podium, and they set the bar pretty high in the height of the race for the vaccines in terms of timely and transparent communications. And we think that that’s pretty well correlated to the fact that they came out so much higher on the social conversations and in brand preference.

Consumers also want to engage directly on social media. So, no big news here with the exception that they want to engage in real time to ask questions about their medicines. This is not about general education questions, which is where we feel very confident in our communications on social. These are direct questions about medicines. And they want to consume educational content in snackable,  entertaining, easy to understand ways, again, not hugely surprising, but they want to learn about their medicines in this same way, which could be a challenge for us, and it could be somewhat terrifying for others on the line today. And another interesting insight is that this one in three raises to 44% with Gen Z, whom McKinsey has named, the dialoguers, because they have a desire to engage with brands and interact with them, to help improve the brands by talking to them and asking questions of the brands.

Mark Westall:

Now we’re going to change pace a little bit here, because I think it’s important to emphasize that this isn’t a flash in the pan. It’s not just something that’s just unique to right now. The shifts in behavior we’ve spoken about today are here to stay. And we have the proof, consumers are emboldened by what they’ve learned during the pandemic. And they seem set to change this behavior for the long term. In our survey, we asked Americans what impact the pandemic will have on their future behavior in relation to pharmaceutical brands and drug brands.

In other words, what’s this going to mean for you in the future? And the responses that we heard were very interesting and here are some of the highlights, and I’ll go from left to right. First one, explain the differences; 52% of Americans say that as a result of the pandemic, they feel more confident asking their doctor to explain the differences between pharma brands. Once more, 79% say that they will check the label of their prescribed medicine in the future to see which company makes it. They’re looking at this almost as if it’s a fashion label or as if they’re buying a food or beverage.

And the one that I actually personally feel is the most important is that one there, state of preference, 44%. So they’re more likely to tell their doctor about personal preferences that they have for certain a pharma brand. And then lastly, I think that’s a win that we can all feel good about, 57% say they are more likely to ask or learn about the science behind the medicine before they request or accept it. But I want to take a moment to absorb what you see on the screen here. And the reason is because these aren’t just attitudinal shifts. These are indications of intended behavior shifts. This is what patients are actively going to do more of. And so we as healthcare marketers, we have to look at this and take notice. And lastly, I want to underscore a further reason why these behaviors will be around for a long time.

And that’s because in virtually every instance, Gen Z, over index across these behaviors, they’re the generation that’s most likely to ask for a pharma brand than the one that’s most likely to look and check the label of a medication before they choose it, and they’re the most likely to state a preference for a specific pharma brand. Interestingly, they were slightly less likely to ask about the science, but that was only 3%, so not successively meaningful. But this message did rank higher among Millennials. So, as we think about that younger audience, that science message is so important for us to break through. And as we’ve seen, Pfizer’s a great example of the brand that has capitalized on that. But the point here in highlighting Gen Z is that they matter, they are soon to become the largest generation in the U.S., they’re the one sharing and shaping conversation online. And they’re what the next generation of patients looks like. And what’s more, they’re also the ones that are helping with their parents, their grandparents, and they have influence in the real healthcare world as well.

Julia Jackson:

All right, so 23 minutes and we’ve thrown an awful lot of information at you. We want to take a second and start to crystallize this and give you a sense of where we think that this is taking us. We think of this as the Brandemic trifecta, which is really a way of saying a confluence of events that has organically risen out of a public health need, an urgent public health need, and that the issue of scarcity, which has led us to this situation of having heightened awareness of brands, unprecedented level of positive sentiment, and this emboldened consumer. Right there, I wish we were together so I could point at it, there’s that nice, big, sweet spot that we have the opportunity to learn from and engage with patients in a new way.

Julia Jackson:

Dave Hicks here said that we have the opportunity for a once in a generation opportunity to reset. And he’s absolutely right, but it’s way beyond just a pharma brand reset. We have the opportunity to reset how we engage with patients, how we engage with HCPs, how HCPs and patients engage with one another, and critically, how we show up in social conversations. Again, that’s still a lot. So, we’re going to narrow it down even further to six key things that we recommend pharma brands begin looking at and acting upon soon or immediately. The first, show up like a lifestyle brand; consumers pay attention to how your medicines make their lives better, but they really don’t care about regulatory restrictions. Feed and operate like a pharmaceutical company, but act like a pharma lifestyle brand by tapping into the emotional benefits of your products.

Mark Westall:

And the next one we have is to lead with science. As we’ve seen throughout the presentation today, consumers are more science savvy, they’re spending time to understand how medicines are developed, tested, and how they work. We didn’t show it in today’s presentation. But in our survey, we found that more than one in three, nearly half of Americans, had read a clinical trial for the first time in the last year. This heightened awareness of science is huge. But the way that we can leverage that harness and breakthrough is to choose the messages and to choose the people within your organization that make that science story human. The next one, listen and engage with Gen Z. That future patient, this audience is actively driving conversation online about what they want and what they don’t want from these pharmaceutical brands. You can go into any social media platform right now, and look at this conversation and deduce lessons from it. So, invest in listening to this next generation of patients and shape your communication strategies with them in mind.

Julia Jackson:

Another recommendation that is probably going to make some people nervous is to take risks. We have to dial up our tolerance for risk levels because more than one in three say that more transparency would make pharma brands even more likable. Showcase your company’s personality and provide a little peek at what’s going on behind the scenes. And that can take us even further along that paradigm that we discussed earlier. Be relevant. We have the tools now to hyper-target our audiences to understand what their wants and needs are. So, we need to serve up content and serve up messages to them that are relevant to them. Don’t just focus on making the medicines available. You need to make your brands available by prioritizing what is most relevant to them.

And finally tell it like it is, something else that’s probably going to give some anxiety to the group. When we’re authentic and consumers have a greater awareness and appreciation of pharma brands, what it actually takes to bring an innovation to market, that’s a huge opportunity, and we can prioritize translating your mission and vision into a human story that’s real and relatable, and will help us stand out for the long term. So, to further crystallize this a little bit, like any good communications strategy or program, all of these six actions are interrelated, right? So, if we start at the upper left and we start showing up as a pharma lifestyle brand, we’re automatically going to be reaching out to next generation patients, right? When we are making our content relevant, sometimes that means we’re going to have to tell it like it is and telling it like it is can often involve dialing up your risk tolerance levels.

And that can be either through content or through tone. And if it’s through content, maybe we have an opportunity to show earlier stage clinical data and make a promise to patients that we will continue to update them regardless of what the data are showing good, bad, or ugly. In terms of tone, maybe we can be a little humorous. Maybe we can be a little cheeky. Maybe we can be a little edgy, so that consumers have something to hold on to and understand who you really are as a brand.

And then finally, we have to lead with science. We are nowhere without science. We know this, we all live and breathe this. So, we have to lead with science because that is our core. We have taken you through quite a bit of data. This is the very first cut of data. We’ve taken you through sort of the American public at large right now, Mark and I, and the team are starting to cut and recut and look at demographics and psychographics. So, if you want to talk more about that at any time, we would be happy to do so you can just reach out. And I think we have maybe time for one or two questions.

Mark Westall:

Yeah. And I would just say, and we’ll answer those questions momentarily. And I’ll just say as well, Julia and I will be available in the, I think the virtual cocktail hour, that’s happening in a couple of hours. You can ask us some questions there too, but I do want to address a couple that have come in. So, the first question I think we have time for, just for a couple of minutes, do you predict that there will be similar interest in brands for things like the flu shot, which we’ve been receiving for years with no concern with who made it? Great question, and incidentally in our survey, to make that direct comparison, we asked respondents to list all of the flu vaccine brands that they were aware of and they could list precisely zero. So, that contrast is definitely there. However, what we will do and what we are planning on doing is to look at how this behavior shifts year over year.

And our prediction and what we anticipate is that, what has happened, and essentially, what we’re seeing is, that the consumers become infinitely more savvy with the world of healthcare. They are reading more clinical trials. They’re more aware of healthcare professionals of different positions. And they’re proactively going onto drug websites and going onto pharma brand websites to learn more information. And that isn’t just going to disappear in a year from now, and they’re not going to care anymore. What our research has suggested is that there is an intent here to shift behavior. And they say it takes eight weeks to form a habit. This has been going on for over a year now, the pandemic. And so this is now part of their mindset. And so we fully anticipate that there’ll certainly be an uptick, or it might not be seismic, that people are suddenly aware of which flu vaccine brands there are, but they may just begin looking. And that behavior we think is going to play out across the space. And it’s one that we’re going to keep an eye on and try and guide people through.

And then there is another question here around the results of the study. Are they public? They are proprietary to us in M Booth health. But we, as Julia mentioned, we are in the process of cutting all the data right now and looking for the various different ways that this could impact people across the healthcare sector. So, we would love to share it with you. All you have to do is ask, follow up, and then we can have a conversation about how we can help you. I want to be mindful. I think we’ll be kicked off in a moment. And there was one more question, just a couple of more come in. Let me just see if I can screw this in. I’m reading this live, so bear with me. Do you think we can look to sports lifestyle in the fail lessons we learn too? LeBron loses sometimes too. Yes, it’s true. And we know failure in science as part of the process.

Julia Jackson:

Absolutely. I’m going to take first crack, and then I’m going to let the researcher jump in here as the marketer, you often learn more in the failure than you do in the success, right? I think that’s part of why we’re so curious to dig into what happened with J&J and what will happen with their reputation since the pause, and since there’ve been these hiccups, so 100% there is gold usually to be found in the failures.

Mark Westall:

Yeah, absolutely. I would just add onto that is healthcare is often lacking behind a little bit with consumers when it relates to how a brand shows up. And that can actually be an advantage in the instance that we haven’t been too public, typically in how we tried to engage consumers. I do think that needs to change, but we can look at the failures that have happened and look at those lessons and learn from that. To give a very recent example, I don’t know to what degree this made the conversation in the U.S. but the Super League, the European Super Soccer League that was announced in Europe, was one of the biggest PR disasters I’ve ever seen in the last week. And that’s because they didn’t listen to their base, the fans of which they were supposed to serve.

And that right there is a very simplistic example of what happens when you don’t listen to the audience, the most important people that you do have to serve. And I think we have the tools and the ability now, there’s no excuse for us not to listen to our audiences. So yes, let’s look at those fails that sports lifestyle brands have had. Let’s see what the conversation was online. Let’s speak to people that were engaged in that, and let’s learn from it. It’s there for us to do. And now we have this data that shows that we have to do it. It’s more important than ever. So, let’s get cracking. I think now we’re officially, I think 20 seconds out, but we might get kicked off. So, massive thank you to everyone who was able to join today, loved every second of conducting this research and sharing it with you.