On her third week as Moderna’s chief brand officer, Kate Cronin arrived at the office with a bag full of Gumby dolls. Her message to staffers: “We have to be super nimble and stretch.”
The reason behind this: Although Moderna has become a household name amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the company only has approximately 1,800 employees. And nearly half of them were hired in the past year.
Cronin has nicknamed the collective “Team Gumby,” because everyone has to pitch in and be flexible.
“Here, there is the mindset that your job is more than your job description,” Cronin says.
With such a small staff, it’s been “incredible” how Moderna was able to launch its COVID-19 vaccine around the world — especially in relation to the “mammoth” pharmaceutical companies also working on the vaccines, such as Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson, she says.
“Chief brand officer” was a newly created role at Moderna, when Cronin started on July 12. And the company’s CEO Stéphane Bancel handpicked Cronin for the position. Bancel had previously brought on Amgen and Johnson & Johnson vet Ray Jordan as chief corporate affairs officer in June 2020.
Before joining Moderna, Cronin was Ogilvy Health’s global CEO. Her firm, at which she worked for 17 years, was actually pitching for Moderna’s business. Shortly after, Bancel called her. Cronin thought he wanted to hire Ogilvy, but it was just Cronin he wanted to recruit.
“We didn’t win the business, but I won the job,” says Cronin, who reports to Bancel.
In her role, Cronin is responsible for amplifying Moderna’s story and the promise of mRNA science for patients. She oversees a “handful” of people right now, but notes that her team is growing. She needs to figure out what her in-house team’s needs are from a corporate perspective.
Additionally, she is mulling over what Moderna’s PR firms should be responsible for. Moderna works with FTI Consulting and Ruder Finn, which it brought on while the company was getting the vaccine off to market.
“We need to think about organizing ourselves better and more efficiently,” Cronin says.
Off and running
On day one, Bancel advised Cronin to get the lay of the land, learn Moderna’s business and understand the science and what makes the company unique. From there, she was instructed to figure out what Moderna’s priorities should be.
“We are a new organization in terms of commercial,” says Cronin. “What I see is laying the foundation and establishing our team, how we can support the business across corporate, research and development, employee and commercial, and making sure we have the right talent to do the job.”
Cronin’s second priority is to develop the brand and comms strategy, which includes amplifying Moderna’s voice and making it stand apart. She notes that it is important people know Moderna makes COVID-19 vaccines, but it is also much more than just that.
“We are not a pharma company,” she says. “We marry tech and science and work off of a platform. So how do we stand apart in a market in a way that makes us unique because we are unique?”
Moderna’s technology, called messenger RNA (mRNA), was never used in a commercial vaccine before. Now, the company knows mRNA technology can aid with public health crises such as COVID-19, but it can also help with other diseases — even rare ones, says Cronin.
Another message Cronin’s team wants to telegraph broadly is that Moderna and scientists such as Kizzmekia Corbett, who was named Changemaker of the Year at the annual PRWeek Purpose Awards in October for her work in developing the vaccine, have been working in mRNA tech for 10 years. This didn’t happen overnight.
“As more real-world evidence comes out, people will see how effective the Moderna vaccine is,” she says.
Cronin’s team is also educating the public about booster shots, as immunity to COVID-19 wanes after about six to eight months has passed following Moderna’s initial two-dose shot.
“Education around that will be critical in terms of people thinking once you are vaccinated, you’re done,” says Cronin. “You have to think about timing in terms of when to get a booster.”
“The variants are keeping us on our toes,” she continues. “We are constantly analyzing how our vaccine protects against emerging variants. What it shows is we have a strong mRNA program and we are able to quickly pivot and recode for the new variants.”
Moderna’s Make It Yours campaign helped get vaccination facts to consumers and showed them that everyone has a different reason to get vaccinated, whether for yourself or for a loved one.
Educating the public
To promote its messaging to consumers, healthcare practitioners and policymakers, Moderna has been conducting media briefings to keep reporters educated on the science behind mRNA vaccines. Chief medical officer Paul Burton is commonly used as the company spokesperson to share Moderna’s data.
In June, the company launched the Make It Yours campaign to get facts out to consumers about the vaccine.
“We understand our audience; everyone has a different reason for getting vaccinated, whether for your loved ones or for yourself,” says Cronin. “We wanted to provide educational resources so people felt empowered to get vaccinated for their own reasons.”
Moderna has also been working with a coalition of partners to meet its goal. In partnership with VaccineFinder, Moderna is giving consumers an easy and convenient way to find and access vaccinations close to them. As part of the campaign, Moderna partnered with Nextdoor to create a neighborhood vaccine map to help people find vaccination sites in their area. Additionally, Moderna is working with the Boston Red Sox and the Red Sox Foundation to engage with its local community in Massachusetts on the importance of vaccination.
The company also partnered with HBCU Buzz, a multimedia company founded as a resource for the Black college community, to present a roundtable discussion called “Breaking Down the Facts About Vaccination Against COVID-19.” The video has been viewed 3.6 million times on YouTube.
“We recognize we can’t go it alone because we are small and nimble,” says Cronin. “We have to figure out who the right partners are to help spread the message and encourage and educate people on vaccinations and about mRNA and why they shouldn’t be afraid of it.”
Physicians are acting as spokespeople for the brand. Because they are “highly influential,” Cronin says Moderna is making sure physicians are engaged and understand the science. Moderna has also created vaccine hesitancy guides for healthcare providers.
“If physicians make a recommendation to get vaccinated, people are more likely to do it,” Cronin says.
But until Moderna’s vaccine gets full FDA approval, which is expected in late 2021, Cronin’s team can only do so much.
“Once we are approved we can do a lot more, so we have to keep our efforts more general,” she says.