Biotechnology: Biotech grows up

As the industry continues to grow, biotech agencies are keeping an eye on pharma's marketing tactics.

As the industry continues to grow, biotech agencies are keeping an eye on pharma's marketing tactics.

One of the turning points in biotech PR might have had nothing to do with biotech at all.

In late 1999, anti-globalization opponents from around the world descended on Seattle to protest a meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO). The protests often led to rioting and vandalism, and left Seattle embarrassed and facing millions of dollars in damage, police overtime, and lawsuits.

The next big conference on global issues to be held after the WTO was the Biotechnology Industry Organization's (BIO) 2000 meeting in Boston. And the problems and issues raised by protests at the WTO meeting did not go unnoticed by the biotech industry, says Micho Spring, chairwoman of Weber Shandwick's US corporate practice.

"The industry recognized the enormous potential to be swept into the same issues and the threat of protests," explains Spring. "There was a communications gap. They were used to talking to science reporters and maybe business reporters."

But now corporate governance, corporate social responsibility, public affairs, and issues management were all on the table. And the industry recognized that it needed to go beyond the usual suspects and educate a broader audience not just about what the industry was trying to accomplish with science, but also what the companies stood for. They had already won some minds. It was time to win some hearts.

"The age of transparency has taken hold," adds Spring. "Now that the line is being blurred between pharma and biotech, companies have engaged in corporate and social reputation programs."

Defining the industry

So biotech firms are learning to talk not just to science writers and the investment community, but to a broader public audience who will ultimately use their products. But biotech companies have their work cut out for them. Spring says a recent WS survey showed that while people have high hopes for biotech to cure everything from SARS to cancer, most can't name a single product or medicine from the category.

With controversial topics from genetically modified food to stem-cell research often being lumped in with biotech, there's an immediate opportunity for biotech to explain what it stands for. And there's an equally great opportunity for biotech to drop the ball and let others characterize the industry.

"There are expectations from the public, and leaving that to be defined by others is dangerous," advises Spring.

Time is of the essence because consumers are more empowered than they have ever been to get information on their own. Consumers have taken to the internet in droves, searching for easily accessible medical information. And a night doesn't go by when America sits down in front of the TV and isn't bombarded with commercials for all manner and categories of wonder drugs.

So biotech companies are taking great strides not to be lumped in with pharma companies, says Caren Arnstein, VP of corporate communications at Genzyme, based in Cambridge, MA. People see pharma companies as too powerful and responsible for high drug prices and the fight against efforts to import cheaper drugs.

The end of last year was marked by events that demonstrate the importance of brand and reputation. The first was Forbes naming Amgen company of the year, helping solidify the challenge biotech is throwing down to big pharma.

On the other hand, you have Chiron, whose UK production plant turned out massive quantities of contaminated flu vaccine, greatly depleting the US' vaccine supply this winter and creating a widespread health scare.

The flu season wasn't quite as bad as reports had anticipated, but the Emeryville, CA-based company still suffered the consequences and watched its stock price and reputation suffer.

"As companies mature, there are more eyes on you," says Lynda Mangarin, corporate communications coordinator at Chiron, who declined to discuss the vaccine situation. "As your audience gets bigger, your message has to, as well. You just can't talk about science to science writers anymore."

Biotechs great and small are taking strides to move in on Big Pharma's turf. But biotechs don't have as many drugs on the market as established pharmaceutical companies do.

Which is why biotechs often talk about what they are trying to accomplish with their science, says Tony Russo, CEO of Euro RSCG Life NRP.

"They are talking about changing the way we treat certain diseases," explains Russo. "They are talking about the promise of tomorrow."

Biotech Goliaths, such as Amgen and Genentech, who have proven product portfolios, show that they can compete head to head with the likes of Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson. As the clich? goes, imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, and pharma companies are starting to imitate biotech's messaging.

Pharma companies are talking more about the science and the drugs in the pipeline than they did in the past, says Russo. And they are also trying to build excitement about the promise of what they are working on.

But the Amgens and Genentechs are few and far between. In the US, there are 1,473 biotech companies, of which 314 are public, according to BIO. So biotech firms are also emulating pharma companies, trying every marketing trick in the book - including celebrity spokespeople and scholarship awards.

Providing greater access

Whether or not a company has many drugs or one or none on the market, there are certain realities it must face when it comes to communicating in a maturing industry. Biotech isn't as mature as big pharma, but it also isn't the new kid on the block anymore. Revenue from biotech companies has exploded, from $8 billion in 1992 to $39.2 billion in 2003, according to BIO.

Some firms that have been around for a couple of decades don't necessarily have products on the market. But you can only talk so long about scientific promise before there's a demand for business results, says SVP Jenny Moede, who leads Waggener Edstrom's bioscience practice. So those smaller companies must provide their own variation of business transparency, presenting clinical and financial milestones.

For any biotech company, there are plenty of opportunities to tell stories, adds Moede. But firms must showcase true innovation and be anchored in business results, such as moving a product into a new stage of Food and Drug Administration testing or announcing a partnership with a pharma company.

"Even the small biotech companies are aware of the importance of transparency and being understood by the public affairs community," adds Spring.

Biotechs are learning to provide greater access to a broader audience. But the key to any company's survival is demonstrating progress. Partnerships, management credibility, and business plans about what it takes to get to market go a long way toward satisfying the needs of journalists and investors alike.

There's a need for thoughtful, creative, and responsible PR campaigns, says Moede. But those that succeed are steeped in a deep understanding of the company's science and business, and a focus on bigger issues, from early disease detection to personalized medicine.

But what the industry is doing best is forging relationships with patients. Many companies go right to advocacy groups that work with patients, so those biotech firms have a direct audience with those who would ideally benefit from the drugs. The industry has taken strides to build rapport with patient groups, but it could still be more consumer friendly, admits Lisa Adler, VP of global corporate affairs at Millennium, based in Cambridge, MA.

As companies seek to build identities, they talk more about themselves and products as if they are one, she adds. Because, as patients understand the products' benefits, they will also associate those benefits with the company.

Those lessons from five years ago have not been lost. While the industry has grown more savvy about dealing with new audiences, these audiences are keenly aware of the power of a company's brand and reputation, good and bad. And while biotech still faces protests, such protests usually don't result in someone hurling a garbage can through a window at Starbucks.

"Your credibility is always important," adds Arnstein. "If people are skeptical, a good reputation can help you. We know what people think of Big Pharma. We don't want to end up in the same place."


Going to market

More and more biotech companies are bringing products to market and competing head to head with pharma companies. Here are some of the leading drugs from the biotech industry:

Avastin: First FDA-approved therapy to inhibit blood vessels from carrying nutrients to tumors; often used to treat patients with metastatic colon cancer

Cubicin: An antibiotic used to treat complicated skin infections caused by certain strains of bacteria

Enbrel: Originally approved to treat rheumatoid arthritis, it is also being tested for its effectiveness against other disorders, including psoriasis

Herceptin: First antibody approved to treat metastatic breast cancer

Rituxan: First FDA-approved therapeutic antibody approved to treat cancer in the US. Rituxan is mainly used to fight non-Hodgkin's lymphoma

Gonal-F: A reproductive drug that helps develop eggs in the ovaries and is often used in dealing with infertility

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