• Matteo Rinaldi

Love-Hate Relationships With Pharma Industry

Written by Matteo Rinaldi & Austėja Subačiūtė

The pharma industry generates approximately $5.4 trillion in sales annually, making it among the top five industries globally in terms of total value. With growing innovations and an aging population, sales are expected to triple in absolute terms by 2060. Although a number of pharma products can be found in each household ranging from prescription and over-the-counter drugs to vitamins and food supplements, pharma companies are often seen as villains to be targeted publicly.

Profiting from ill-health can be a delicate subject. Even more so when companies constantly develop new products of questionable value and spurious added benefits to try to differentiate themselves from their competitors or simply increase their margins. Consumers are bombarded every day with claims about better absorption, faster action, greater convenience, and fewer side effects. Some pharma companies focus so much on delivering marginally better products than their competitors that they forget to look at what their consumers ultimately want and need in their lives. Even John Oliver of the Last Week Tonight show made a joke of US pharma companies and their marketing activities saying that “Drug companies are a bit like high school boyfriends. They're much more concerned with getting inside you than being effective once they're in there.” Although it is this is clearly an exaggeration, the audience laughed because it hit a tension point and nailed what many believe.

Whether we’re talking about big global brands or local players, when it comes to creating more involving pharma brands that are truly relevant and meaningful for the consumer, it boils down to the perception problem that impacts pharma companies. This becomes even more challenging in an industry that is characterized by a high level of price sensitivity, increased generic competition, and growing governmental regulations on pharma advertising.

After working with over 20 brands in different categories from painkillers and flu medication to food supplements and derma-cosmetics, we discovered a way to overcome these perception issues and create more emotionally engaging brands in such a challenging industry.

It all starts by understanding consumers and their needs. But here’s the tricky part: If you rely on conventional research and ask your consumers what they want, they’ll most probably list the key functionalities of a product such as “____ is more effective for a lower price.” These overly rational answers to a decision process that is often emotionally driven can mislead companies to quicken their pace to improve the functional benefits of their products while overlooking the emotional connections and value their product can have within their consumer’s lives. This prompts the question: “Is this what consumers really want?” The answer is partly yes … but mostly no. It is undoubtedly true that consumers want effective and affordable products. These are the cost-of-entry benefits, the must-haves to be considered in a consumer’s frame of reference. If a brand only communicates at this level, it might be able to create a good product, but this is far from creating an engaging brand. Another good example is pharma brands that claim to be the safest in the category; this is how they intend to differentiate from their competitors. Safety is another must-have benefit. Ask yourself whether consumers would even consider buying a medicine which they didn’t think of as safe? That’s a good way to test if you are really just touting a cost-of-entry benefit.

To help brands stand out from the competition, we capture and analyze big data to understand the consumers’ deeper needs, those which go beyond the category and may not always be easily articulated by the consumers themselves. This way we can create an emotional bond with our consumers and move from selling a product to connecting to an appealing lifestyle that our consumers aspire to. 


Levitra is an erectile dysfunction medicine from Bayer. We were challenged to re-position the brand in Russia. Our objective was to become the leader in a market dominated by Viagra. From our research, we identified that the “youth cult” was particularly relevant in the category. To be respected by their partners and by others, men in Russia have a strong need to feel and be perceived as young, strong, and powerful in all areas of their lives. Yet the category advertisements made them feel like they had serious medical problems experienced primarily by older men. Such an approach stigmatized and stagnated the entire category as men felt too embarrassed to address the issue, even with their partners. Some of them went as far as preferring their partners to believe that they had a mistress rather than share the reality that they were experiencing erectile dysfunction. Through big data analysis, we were able to uncover the key consumer needs and overcome emotional barriers to drive category purchase behavior. Ultimately, the Russian erectile dysfunction consumers desperately wanted to fulfil basic performance expectations while maintaining their own sense of male identity. In understanding the deeper, emotionally driven needs, which many consumers found difficult to vocalize, we moved from providing treatment to delivering the James Bond experience and empowering the men to be at their best in any situation.

While the macho and sophisticated James Bond image resonates well in the Russian market, the needs of consumers in Norway, India, or the USA may be quite different. Being a strong and successful man in one culture can understandably be substantially different in another. Nevertheless, many global pharma brands still tend to use the same communication strategy to engage their consumers globally even though there is no such thing as a ‘typical' global consumer. While such an approach may be beneficial from a cost perspective, it limits growing the ultimate bottom line from a total sales and revenue perspective as it makes consumer feel that the brand does not understand them. To avoid such a pitfall, once a global brand strategy is defined, the next step is to ensure its relevance in local markets. Start by understanding consumers’ similarities and differences globally as well as in each selected market, and then adapt the global strategy to country-specific nuances without compromising your clear global message. 

Working in an entirely different category with a global food-supplements brand, we created a strategy focusing on consumers who seek balance across different areas in their lives – family, career, social life, hobbies, personal time, etc. Since they don’t want to sacrifice any of those areas, they continuously feel guilty about not meeting expectations in any of them. The global segment insights created the basis for the strategy across four markets – France, Italy, Russia, and Ukraine – where we positioned the brand as an inspiration for consumers to accept themselves the way they are and to enjoy more fully what they are doing in life, in the moment. Furthermore, based on local insights, different aspects of the consumers’ lives were highlighted in each market. In France, the perspective of career and professional growth was the primary focus. In Italy, enjoyment of life and its pleasures was the key, while in Russia and Ukraine, the factors of external validation and family were paramount. Based on these insights, we were able to deliver a global message of inspiration in a way that was meaningful for consumers in each market.

While there will always be controversy related to the pharma industry, the only certain and lasting way to stand out from the competition and to create an emotional bond with consumers is to understand them as humans living full and complicated lives that are integrated with a wide variety of needs, hopes, and desires. Only then can you deliver on their ultimate needs, going beyond the category and becoming part of their lifestyle. This is how you gain long-term loyalty and create brand advocacy in your best consumers to help you recruit new consumers.

#HumanCentricMarketing #PharmaceuticalIndustry


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