“It’s Health, NOT Big Bad Pharma”— Changing an Industry through Social Media

by @Spitz

With great fanfare and enthusiastic engagement Social Media Week swept through New York City recently, top agencies and big pharma companies from Ogilvy to Pfizer hosting their own healthcare social media-focused panels, forums, and keynotes of interest.

Discussions ranged from experts such as John Nosta and Buddy Scalera advocating pharma participation in social media by the leveraging of digital health tools and technologies, to interesting counterpoint insisting that user generated and branded content remain inherently and dangerously incompatible.

The Pfizer and LiveWorld sessions offered both practical and conceptual approaches to bridging the gaps. Paul Matsen, Chief Marketing and Communications Officer of the Cleveland Clinic presented an astonishing multi-channel case study on how the renowned hospital is using digital to engage with its constituents; while Peter Pitts, President and co-founder of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest reminded the group that current FDA guidance offers plenty of wiggle room for outreach, insisting that an organized industry response to even off-label, unsolicited requests is appropriate and even necessary for the benefit of public health.

Trouble at the Source: Pharma Reputation

An underlying theme resonating throughout all the week’s sessions was the often questionable and always delicate reputation of pharma, and how viable solutions through social media and tech engagement aren’t being utilized enough due to the ongoing fear of PR and AE—oft-cited public relations and adverse event concerns or, as many would say, excuses.

“It takes many good deeds to build a reputation,” said Ben Franklin, “and only one bad one to lose it.” Perhaps no industry is more vulnerable and sensitive to that “one bad deed,” continuously expressed through product recalls, warning letter dings by the FDA, and, ironically enough, pharma’s own continued unwillingness to participate openly and transparently in a manner that patients, caregivers, and healthcare professionals already embrace.

Although social media is often portrayed by pharma as part of its reputation problem, as Peter Pitts asserts the medium is actually central to the solution. Rather than approach social media as a marketing tool or line item on the tactical spreadsheet, the channel must be understood and embraced on its own terms, not only transforming how pharma engages with its constituents, but how the industry views and understands itself.

Case Study: Using Social Media to Rebrand a Country

A terrific example of transforming reputation through a social media rebranding campaign is “It’s Colombia—NOT Columbia” by the Bogota-based digital agency @Zemoga. Few countries have had a more difficult time reminding the world not only how they are correctly spelled, but how they have evolved from a third-world nation with questionable associations to a leading hub of innovation, development, and opportunity.

Launching a Facebook page now with over 10K likes, the Zemoga team infused the campaign with an invitation for people throughout the world to contribute examples of embedding the slogan within cartoons, websites, road signs, anything and everything. The creativity captures the heartfelt sentiment behind the storytelling: That Colombia isn’t the place you thought it was, instead a country and a people riveted by pride, productivity, and a diversity of culture and output long taken for granted.

By enabling and empowering fans of Colombian culture and craft to become advocates, the messengers become the messaging, humanizing and legitimizing a point of view that conveys a belief that in turn engenders positive behavioral change. And with no paid promotion or other forms of advertising, the campaign has generated significant ROI and gotten significant press, with sweeping tangible and long-term subtle benefits to a country in the midst of redefining the way it sees itself, and how the world sees it.

“It’s Health—NOT Big Bad Pharma”

The analog from Colombia to pharma is apparent, addressing the basic challenge: How can the questionable and often erroneous reputation of an established brand be transformed relatively quickly and economically? The power of social media is finally uncontested, but its use can lead to as many marketing and communications disasters as opportunities. Without engagement there’s no social media, but without transparency and a willingness to expose a brand to risk, there’s no engagement.

So how can “Big Bad Pharma” instead become “Health,” an industry seen not as healing the sick at best or making a buck off suffering at worst, but keeping people healthy, improving the duration and quality of life, and ultimately contributing to the public good? Clearly that rebranding must start from within, pharma redefining itself and its own goals, shifting from the mere creator of treatment options to providing solutions and benefit to real people—not only reactively to sickness, but proactively in terms of prevention, awareness building, and healthy living.

The fairly recent shift in emphasis from marketing specific brands to communicating the value-proposition of entire franchise portfolios is a start. Pharma marketers continue to learn that physicians treat whole patients, and not diseases, and that these diseases are often associated with numerous comorbidities—all in turn influenced by holistic lifestyle factors such as diet, exercise, and emotional well-being. Such “rebranding from within” will continue in a manner best in line with improving how pharma does what it does, and ultimately how the public views the industry.


Along the way, social media will inevitably become more, not less integrated into how pharma understands itself and its own mission, and how it communicates with the world. By focusing on its core goal of improving public health, pharma can remain focused on its ultimate end user—the patient—and thereby communicate with patients the same way patients are already engaging with each other, their friends, family, and healthcare professionals. Although inevitable, the way it does so will be surprising, since the obstacles remain considerable, and the technological platforms constantly in flux.

As digital health innovators, entrepreneurs, advocates, and partners, the value we can provide is only just beginning to be felt, the entire industry and the society that sustains it embracing communications technology faster than the technology and our communications habits can even keep up. Remember: “It’s the Future—NOT just Digital Health,” so we, too, must look outside ourselves in order to better understand our own motivations, constantly reinvent the digital health brand personality, and identify the genuine opportunities moving forward.

What do you think? Share your thoughts below…

Michael Spitz , known most often as just "Spitz," is Editor-in-Chief of the Pixels & Pills and a prollific tweeter, blogger, and article writer, active in digital health across all specialties. Follow him @SpitzStrategy.



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