Vertex's plan is immediately transparent

Even without a product to promote, the pharma company is building its brand through openness

Vertex Pharmaceuticals has a distinct advantage over some of its larger, better-known brethren - the company is kicking off its communications efforts with what amounts to a clean slate.

Unlike many pharmaceutical companies that have spent the past two years attempting to address reputation issues too deeply ingrained for an instant fix, Vertex has spent its time trying to solve the fundamental question of how to introduce itself to the public.

In 2005, following a sudden rush of attention on the release of initial clinical trial results for its potentially groundbreaking hepatitis C virus (HCV) drug, Telaprevir, the company began to wonder exactly how it would brand itself.

"It made us a much more visible company and all of a sudden we weren't just a biotech company that was considered to be scientifically savvy, but one that had a big product opportunity on our hands," says Michael Partridge, senior director for corporate communications at Vertex.

Because of the sudden interest, the initial communications focused on investors. But that effort quickly expanded to encompass anyone who might be interested in the company, its products, and its culture. The thought process at Vertex was about far more than how to prepare for an eventual product launch. Transparency quickly became a keyword, with the advantage that the company could attempt as much transparency as possible from the get-go.

"We've been thinking, since 2005 or so, about how it is we want to be seen and how we want people to get to know us, and really thinking about brand building," Partridge says. "It's a recognition that, with a product coming to market under our own name, we want people to get to know us."

Last year, Vertex hired Ruder Finn as its AOR and tapped Dotglu to lead a complete redesign of its corporate Web site. The two moves, Partidge says, came about only after finding agencies that understood what made Vertex tick. He adds that both agencies understand the bigger picture of where the company wants to go, and that means traditional PR isn't necessarily the path to success.

Without a product to promote (the company must wait until approval to promote the product under Food and Drug Administration guidelines), Ruder Finn's task has been to communicate the science, including the data from Telaprevir's clinical trials, with a level of transparency to investors, doctors, and advocacy groups.

Helping to put the science in terms easier to understand, says Michael Schubert, chief creative officer for Ruder Finn, helps to set the path for transparency down the road.

"Traditionally, PR was about pushing out news, and when there's news we do all the traditional things. The other piece is a community of treaters and patients - as well as investors - who are really hungry for something different," explains Schubert. "People discover the power of the data and we make sure the dialogue is open. We've seen that [Vertex has] this openness to letting the science stand on its own, and [is] in a place where there are very strong, unmet needs."

The redesign of the Web site has, to this point, been the single biggest effort towards branding the biotech, and introducing the company to a wider audience. The site does not look like a traditional pharma site. Transparency again, says Tomas Mendez, creative director at Dotglu, is the crucial element, and the company tried to make information as accessible as possible to a wide variety of audiences in a no-nonsense style.

It's that style that means the team emphasizes the science in an obvious way. So you won't find any puppies or smiling families. The navigation bar looks like a DNA strand, and even the company's "Just Maybe" tagline speaks to the uncertainty of science.

"Instead of being promissory, 'just maybe' is optimistic, but it's also honest. It's very bold. Right away there's this sense of anticipation and it gives you this sense of vision the company has," Mendez says.

The team designing the site also put the company's pipeline front and center, unlike larger companies that want visitors to focus on products already in the market. To that end, they could make the data from clinical studies easy to find, and easy to digest.

The company's insistence on presenting things a little differently took other forms. For instance, in the section about the executives, each role is described as the person's outfit changes: suit for Joshua Boger the CEO, more casual for Boger the founder, more casual still for Boger the advocate.

It's the little details that help a company form a bond with its audience, and as Vertex nears what could be its day in the sun, Partridge hopes all the work done now will see the company in an enviable position. Vertex's tendency towards experimentation expands past its science. "Across the company, people are encouraged to try new things and experiment," says Partridge.

At a glance

Company: Vertex Pharmaceuticals
President/CEO: Joshua Boger
Headquarters: Cambridge, MA
Latest Earnings: '06 sales $216.4m
PR/Marketing Budget: Undisclosed
Key Trade Titles: BioCentury, Nature Biotechnology, Scrip World Pharmaceutical News, Pharmaceutical Executive, The Pink Sheet
Marcomms Team: Michael Partridge, senior director, strategic communications Ilana Robbins, principal interface designer; Patricia Farrell, director, PR; Zachry Barber, senior media relations specialist
Marketing Service Agencies: Ruder Finn, Dotglu

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