Pharma companies understand the need to communicate who they are as corporations.
It was back in January 2003 when Merck executives first decided to take a closer look at the drug company's reputation.
The company had commissioned a survey, which yielded the dismal finding that less than half of lay and medical audiences were very or somewhat familiar with the company and its good works.
The findings came before Merck garnered notoriety for recalling its blockbuster drug Vioxx, throwing the arthritis market into turmoil. But the company, nonetheless, was facing an environment where it - and the entire industry - needed to stake out a position on the twin issues of drug costs and access.
"In the absence of Merck not going out and telling our story, we're letting third parties tell it for us," says Len Tacconi, executive director of corporate communications. "What we're trying to do is get [our own] message out."
The multi-channel outreach initiative will share the company's history, beginning with the patient-centered legacy of founder George Merck. WPP agencies Ogilvy & Mather and Burson-Marsteller are charged with the advertising and PR components, respectively.
Tacconi notes that the centerpiece is on how Merck helps patients, whether it's with the vaccines the company produces, its unbranded health information tools, such as the Merck Manual, or its drug-assistance programs.
"As a 114-year-old company with a proud history, we're suffering from a lot of misconceptions and concerns that are related to a lack of information," Tacconi says. "Most of the communications is not traditional corporate communications. It's not self-serving in any way."
While the initiative is new for Merck, the pharma industry has been moving in this direction for the past few years, promoting corporate brands with the same zeal as products.
Marita Gomez, partner at HealthInfo Direct, notes that drug companies had historically relied on advertising to promote their corporate brands, but are now using more strategic initiatives.
"Corporate ads have been around for decades," she says. "What we're seeing now is a change in frequency, intensity, and strategic brand messaging."
"There's been a whole new level of interest and engagement of companies with corporate communications," says Nancy Turett, president and global director of health at Edelman. "Transparency is incredibly important. There are some basic issues that need to be addressed."
Turett notes that companies were "surprised" by the scrutiny of the early and mid-1990s.
Part of it was political, stemming from the Clinton-era push for socialized medicine that turned the healthcare delivery system - and who pays for it - into a matter of public debate.
But there was also the growth of blockbuster brands, particularly cultural phenomenon Viagra, the erectile dysfunction drug. "Viagra was a product intensely covered by the world well before there was any proactive marketing by Pfizer," Turett notes. "The public became much more aware of the companies behind the products."
Finally, the growth of the internet just a few years later made information on company activities easier to access.
Increased awareness also meant increased accountability. Recalls - like that of statin Baycol (Bayer) in 2001, and painkillers Vioxx and Bextra (Pfizer) in 2004 and 2005, respectively - escalated into high-profile crises.
Critics were not just scrutinizing how much drugs cost, but whether firms had deliberately withheld risk information.
"There's a good deal of information that's out there from one point of view," says Ame Wadler, chairwoman of the healthcare practice at Burson. "It's hard to respond ... unless people understand who you are and what you do."
Messages are also trying to address issues head-on, from drug importation to the price of innovation. "In the past, we've been research-focused; now it appears [the outreach is] about the end result of that research, which is saving patient lives," Gomez says.
Pfizer is among the companies trying to gain attention for its good works.
"When I retire, the one thing I'm looking forward to is not having to hear, 'Wow, that's a great thing - why don't you tell people about it?'" says Chuck Hardwick, former SVP of corporate affairs, who was the keynote speaker during May's Communicating Pharmaceutical Value conference. "I constantly try to leverage our philanthropy. My job ... has been, how do you weave that into a coherent philosophy?"
Hardwick, who described a number of Pfizer philanthropic projects - from providing free medicines to low-income individuals to funding projects to fight AIDS, trachoma, and infectious disease in Africa - notes that stakeholders often have conflicting demands. "I think these programs appeal to a large number of stakeholders, [but] they don't answer the questions: Why don't you stop DTC advertising? Why don't you lower your prices? And others," he says.
Addressing all audiences
Wadler notes that tactics for addressing stakeholders with disparate interests stem from the same starting point - determining what it is the company wants them to know. But companies then need to tailor the outreach vehicle to each group.
She adds that communication must evolve as individuals begin to understand a company in a new way. "I don't see this kind of communication as static at all," Wadler says. "This is an ongoing conversation."
One of the challenges for the pharmaceutical industry has been the sheer number of audiences it faces.
"Pharmaceutical companies have more constituencies they need to address than traditional consumer products - [such as] consumers, physicians, managed-care organizations, government, Wall Street, and advocates," says Megan Svenson, healthcare practice EVP at Marina Maher Communications. "As a result, consumer perceptions of corporate pharmaceutical brands have not received as much attention."
The corporate players in pharma also change rapidly, Svenson notes.
For example, in a chain of M&A activity, the former Marion Merrell Dow became Hoechst Marion Roussel, which became Aventis Pharmaceuticals, which is now Sanofi-Aventis.
Pfizer absorbed Upjohn, Pharmacia, and Warner-Lambert, which have ceased to exist as brands.
A corporate restructuring similarly spurred Bayer to launch its "Science for a Better Life" push after it sold off some brands and acquired others. It wanted to attract shareholders and rally staffers who saw the changes firsthand, says Bob Walker, director of communications.
The campaign creates a single message around the three business units under the Bayer umbrella: healthcare, crop science, and material science. "It's an image-building initiative," Walker says. "Our future is based on innovation, and what we do is about science."
Maryellen Royle, SVP at Dorland Global Public Relations, notes that employees are both stakeholders and ambassadors in an image campaign.
Dorland client Centocor had originally undertaken its internal branding campaign to instill pride in its employees. But, "it went over so well ... that we brought some of those corporate programs to the public," Royle recalls. "Any ad that talked about the science of Centocor also featured the real folks behind the company."
GlaxoSmithKline is also using its staff as part of an initiative in which sales representatives deliver talks in front of local community groups. "If we just rely on the corporate [headquarters] to deliver the message, we're missing the game," says Michael Pucci, VP of external advocacy. "Our core message is really about the future."
Although many companies appear to be acting in tandem, each describes a different set of circumstances - and tactics - driving its campaign. "There's so much talk of the industry as an industry, but, if you look at these companies, they're all very different," Wadler says. "To stand proud for your products, you have to have a face and a voice."
Schering-Plough embraced a more open communication model when CEO Fred Hassan stepped into office in April 2003. The company's previous leadership had assumed it could let earnings speak for themselves - but the financial picture wasn't telling the whole story, says Stephen Galpin, VP of financial and strategic communications. "The value comes from letting people know what you're doing and what you're standing for," he says. "It doesn't take a very long time to blow up a reputation. It takes a very long time to win it back."
Schering-Plough isn't undertaking an image campaign per se, but both Hassan and the company's scientists are "embedding core business values" in speeches, media interviews, and on a grassroots level, Galpin notes.
"The most important thing is to understand the needs of your constituents ... to ensure that you're being a responsible corporate citizen," says Turett. "Corporate citizenship starts in the most mundane of ways. It's the ethics and values on which you practice your business."