Can marketing save the pharmaceutical industry’s poor reputation?

As a global company with half a century of presence in Malaysia, Pfizer is one of the country’s leading innovative biopharmaceutical companies. Committed to improving the healthcare access of Malaysians, Pfizer’s marketing has often said it “has been saving generations of lives”.

Over the years, the company has taken several steps to connect with consumers. Nonetheless, working in the pharmaceutical field is not a bed of roses for any marketer. Pharmaceutical companies across the globe have been scrutinised and heavily criticised for their lack of ethics and transparency.

Recently, a report by MSLGROUP called The Reputation Impact Indicator stated that across the world, people have set much higher expectations in regard to the corporate behaviour of pharmaceutical companies than they do for companies such as FMCG or consumer electronics. This means that for a pharmaceutical company to act in a non-ethical way will be more damaging than to a company in the other verticals.

A+M sat down in an exclusive interview with Pfizer Malaysia’s director of corporate affairs, health and value, Azwar Kamarudin, a “Pfizerian” with more than a decade of experience with the brand, to find out what has caused the spiral downwards for pharmaceutical companies and if marketing can help remedy the situation.

“The biggest challenge the pharmaceutical industry is facing today is probably the reputation crisis. The pharmaceutical industry has been suffering from the trust deficit caused by unethical marketing practices,” she says.

She says that in Malaysia, coupled with the fact the nation is one of the most digitally connected countries in the region, the healthcare environment is facing a huge challenge in curbing incorrect information reaching the hands of consumers.

With a variety of information always available at a patient’s fingertips, marketers and pharmaceutical companies need to up their game to ensure the right messages get through to their target audiences.

“This influx of online health information empowers patients, but also confuses them,” she says, adding that the need to disseminate the right information in a quick manner is more pertinent now. Ultimately, if the wrong information falls in the hands of consumers, it is the image of the brand that suffers.

Passionate about her field, she says what keeps her going at Pfizer Malaysia is the belief the company is truly working towards creating a healthier world. An ongoing priority for her and her team is getting the right information placed in the right channels. She adds the marketing team has been “devoting tremendous efforts to ingrain integrity in all its interactions and introduce many ongoing compliance programmes”.

No stranger to giving back to society, Pfizer Malaysia has often launched various campaigns that not only urge its consumers to come together to help the greater society, but also ensures the brand has an active role to play in the community – leading change. One successful campaign launched by Pfizer that effectively communicated both these stances was its “Ball of Life” campaign.

In 2013, Pfizer Malaysia collaborated with the Lung Foundation of Malaysia to highlight the importance of protecting society against pneumococcal disease. The campaign encouraged the public to contribute towards ensuring children and the elderly were protected against pneumococcal by signing a pledge.

For every signature, Pfizer Malaysia contributed a sum towards the Lung Foundation of Malaysia for research into the prevention of the disease. The “Ball of Life” initiative met and exceeded its initial target of 3000 signatures, with a donation of RM5 per pledge. The overwhelming support resulted in 11,476 pledges which demonstrated the public support against the disease.

More recently, the company also launched the KidStrong campaign to reach out to the public about pneumococcal. For the six-month campaign, Pfizer Malaysia creatively collaborated with the Malaysian Official Designer’s Association (MODA), a non-profit association of Malaysia’s foremost fashion designers, for a special initiative which was the cape designing pledge.

MODA was engaged to create exclusive designs for the capes and a fashion show was also launched. A “Design a cape, protect a kid” initiative involving healthcare providers and child care centres was also launched. This engaged the public to pledge by submitting their designs and Pfizer donated RM5 to the under privileged with every submitted design to a charitable cause for children.

The campaign, which featured a superhero theme, was aimed at increasing awareness that children can be protected from pneumococcal. The use of a superhero cape was to symbolise protection and convey the message that every child has the right to be protected.

To take the engagement one step further, in conjunction with WHO’s World Immunisation Week, Pfizer Malaysia together with MODA and the Asian Strategic Alliance for the Prevention of Pneumococcal Disease, revealed the KidStrong designers’ edition of capes at a fashion show to raise awareness on the importance of vaccination against pneumococcal.

A grant of RM20,000 was also donated to the Orphan Care Foundation, a non-profit non-governmental organisation established in 2008, which aims to give every orphan and abandoned baby a chance to be loved and cared for by a family.

“Marketing activities should not just be for the company’s bottom line in the pharmaceutical industry. It is our responsibility to ensure that the right medications reach the right patients to help make lives better,” Kamarudin says.

Pfizer Malaysia works with more than 6600 general practitioners, 2000 retail pharmacists, 6200 doctors from government hospitals and 3500 doctors from private hospitals across the nation. It also has 91 products of varying portfolios. With so much going on for the company, A+M asks how she manages to always keep her head in the game.

Coming on board the Pfizer brand in 2003 as associate manager for corporate affairs, she shares that her past experience in the public sector with roles at the Ministry of International Trade and then at the Prime Minister’s Department has taught her to handle the complexities of the pharmaceutical world.

Most recently, she was also given the health and value portfolio, where she is directly responsible for commercial and ensuring buyers and patients get access to the company’s innovative medicines.

Meanwhile, this year being Pfizer Malaysia’s 50th anniversary sees it trying to create more activities and buzz around the brand. As part of its celebrations, Pfizer is producing a 50th anniversary coffee table book on its legacy in Malaysia. At the launch, it is also honouring 50 individuals in Malaysia who have contributed to Malaysian society.

“Pfizer’s 50th anniversary is more than just a celebration. It is a commemoration of its contribution towards Malaysia’s healthcare for 50 years and a brand that has been saving generations of patients.

“I am happy to not be confined in my roles and the dynamics of the company allows me to evolve and contribute my ideas in the overall development and growth of the company.”

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