When the internet is the best prescription

The pharmaceutical giants are a prime example of companies that can boost their public standing with stronger online interventions, David Bowen says.

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I have long been baffled by the appalling reputation of Big Pharma, the drugs industry giants. Why are companies whose raison d’être is to make people healthy vilified more than, say, armaments manufacturers? The immediate answer, of course, is because they are accused of devious marketing ruses that run from fictionalised accusations of dodginess in developing countries (The Constant Gardener by John Le Carré) to sophisticated accusations about clinical trials and the like (Bad Pharma, a new book by Ben Goldacre).
And it’s not as though their marketing is not heavily regulated. Outside the US they are not even allowed to advertise prescription drugs to patients.
Then it occurred to me. Paragraphs one and two are linked, possibly even closely. If you are not allowed to advertise your products, what do you do? You turn to other techniques to get an edge on your rivals, and you may just be tempted to push the ethical envelope.
I am not advocating relaxing marketing regulations – not my area. What I am proposing, you won’t be surprised to hear, is using the internet far more aggressively. For non-dodgy marketing.
(At this point I should say this column is aimed at any organisation looking for more sophisticated below-the-line marketing techniques, not just at Big Pharma. Many have similar issues.)

Push company not product


It should not be too controversial to suggest that you can use the internet for marketing. As I say that, your mind probably swings towards social media – engaging with consumers, gathering and analysing ‘big data’, advertising et cetera. Effective, but, coming back to pharma, impossible.
What pharmaceutical companies can do is to market themselves – the whole company, not individual brands – by convincing customers (patients more than doctors) that they are honest, responsible, un-dodgy. Let me assume, just for the sake of it, that clearly corrupt marketing practices are being crushed by enlightened senior management. But that there are also grey areas where pharma companies can defend their position – which there are, because I have heard industry people debating them with Dr Goldacre.

Go head to head with critics


Pharma companies do use their sites to defend their reputations. One of the reasons so many of them come near the top of the FT Bowen Craggs Index is that they clearly explain their views on, for example, using animals in research. If they have a specific issue, they will use the site – see Novartis on the Glivec case in India (featured on its home page). And some are also getting good at telling patient recovery stories – Johnson and Johnson’s video and text stories are examples.
But they tend to respond to industry-wide issues with bland abstractions, stressing codes of conduct and the like. They do not confront their opponents head on and treat them with the sophistication and respect they deserve. Websites are excellent for putting up direct and up-to-date answers to criticism (better than social media channels, which tend to favour brevity). A long-established example is Nestlé’s Babymilk site – it is not as detailed and responsive as it used to be, but it shows that the group takes its opponents on this long-running issue seriously.
Two problems. First, how to get patients to look at the corporate site when few of them know which company makes their drugs and the companies themselves have almost no consumer profile. Second, how to get bosses to see that this is important. I’ll answer the second first by saying there isn’t an answer but I hope pieces like this will help a little.

Strengthen leads to the website


Fortunately, other companies having been doing some work in raising Holland-flat corporate profiles by using the web. Unilever discovered some years ago that consumers in Asia were increasingly looking at the company behind the brand, and would favour a product if they discovered it was made by a group they liked. Unilever launched its customer-focused corporate websites largely in response – worth looking at, because they are well used to sell the group as responsible, in a consumer-friendly way.
Unilever shared an issue with pharma. How many people knew that it made Flora, Dove, Liptons and goodness knows how many other brands? Not many, which is why they all now have a Unilever logo on their packaging. Pharmaceutical products also say which company is behind them, but they don’t exactly shout about it – a bigger logo, a web address, that would help.
Search engine optimisation is critical too. Put ‘baby milk’ into Google; Nestlé has that one cracked.
Now, too, there is social media. Use it to drive consumers to your site. You have to be careful because of marketing restrictions, but monitor what is being said, use your own channels with subtlety and get as many people a possible to the right bit of your website. If you have a good story to tell, tell it there – with text, graphics, video, whatever.
Of course if you don’t have a good story to tell, or there are bad things going on in your company, you have a problem. Sort that first – I’m afraid I can’t help there.

First published 17 October, 2012
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