Tried and Trusted

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Efforts at bolstering the industry's flagging reputation are paying off in the US , a new survey from Edelman suggests. Pharma companies are trusted by 64% of the North American knowledge and opinion leaders surveyed for the 2007 Edelman Trust Barometer. That's a substantial improvement over last year's 48% of US KOLs who said they trusted drug companies.

Since the withdrawal of Vioxx, the pharma industry has routinely polled in the doldrums of public opinion, alongside much-loathed businesses like oil and tobacco. The figures suggest that industry efforts, ranging from corporate advertising and self-regulation to access and affordability initiatives—is having an impact.

“When we take care of consumers, the issues go away,” says Michael Pucci, who initiated GlaxoSmithKline's Value of Medicine initiative. Pucci notes that a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll found 81% approval for the Medicare prescription drug benefit among recipients. “Marketing practices have improved dramatically, and we're more visible. We're advertising patient assistance programs, helping our patients, and we've had great breakthroughs in health. When those stories make headlines instead of people fussing over prices, we all benefit.”

In short, the industry has had a personality transplant. “Pharmas have finally embraced the paradigm that educated consumers are the best customer,” says former FDA deputy commissioner for communications Peter Pitts, now with MS&L and the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest. “And that means educating them about the value of medicines rather than just selling medicines. Companies need to position themselves as experts and leaders in 21st century healthcare.”

Edelman healthcare practice head Nancy Turett says particularly impactful messaging stresses technology and innovation, a theme woven through multiple corporate campaigns of the past year. High-tech industries generally fared well among respondents to the Edelman survey, with the technology industry placing first in trust, followed closely by biotechs and life science companies (trusted by 69%). Pharmas placed fifth in trust among the sectors surveyed, wedged between consumer packaged goods manufacturers (fourth place) and healthcare companies and retail chains (tied for sixth).

Incidentally, while business publications were highly regarded by survey respondents as trustworthy sources of info, the media biz placed dead last in the sector rankings. Don't gut your media relations budget just yet, but you may want to shift some resources toward social media.
“The Internet is a great equalizer,” says Turett, adding that peer-to-peer communication is fast becoming as important as traditional media for marketers. “There's an understandable fear [in pharma] toward participating in social media… but a relatively large slice of the audience is open minded enough to listen and form their own opinions.”

Consumers of social media skew younger and are far more diverse than your average corporate campaign's target, Turett says. They're also persuadable. “Companies that are visibly participating as corporate citizens are more likely to be trusted,” she says, “and people participating in a broad range of media are getting fresher information more frequently, so their picture of the industry is not monolithic.”

The study found that among sources of information, “A person like yourself” ranked alongside doctors and healthcare professionals as the most credible among respondents from developed economies (for the developing world, it was “The CEO of your company”). Turett says further questioning revealed that “A person like yourself” was defined by shared interests and values rather than demographic characteristics—making online fora a potentially powerful tool for persuasion.

Business media and analyst reports still outpace conversations with friends and peers by 8 points in the developed world, followed by coverage on TV and radio and in newspapers. Corporate Web sites are deemed credible sources by about a third of the first world respondents.

Maintaining a presence bumps up corporate reputation, researchers found—despite negative publicity. In short, consumers trust corporate brands they know, even if they're not perfect. Edelman researchers found a strong bias toward local companies or those that promote themselves at a local or regional level abroad, making internal relations— and programs like GSK's, in which US sales reps speak to community groups on industry issues—seem particularly important.

Asked which they would trust more, a strong global brand or a company with a strong local presence, 62% of European respondents said they favored a firm with a local presence, as did 58% of North American respondents and 56% of Latin American respondents. Only in Asia did a majority of respondents—three-fifths—favor a global brand.

Trust in pharma varies widely from region to region and country to country, at its highest in Latin America, where 80% say they trust the industry, and lowest in the EU (just 53%). Generally, KOLs in developing economies are more trusting of the industry than are those in developed nations. Trust is highest in India (85%), Brazil (83%) and Mexico (77%), and lowest in Germany (38%), France and Canada (46%).

Edelman found that educated and affluent respondents were more trusting of the industry, with 65% of respondents with postgraduate degrees and 63% of those with incomes over $100,000 saying they trust pharmas versus 59% of those with a bachelor's and 58% of those with incomes under $100,000. “More educated individuals are more likely to appreciate the complexity of the situation and recognize that companies can be imperfect and still be trustworthy,” says Turett.

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