Josiah Cope, Wunderman Thompson Health
Josiah Cope, Wunderman Thompson Health

Development of a vaccine is the only measure that will eradicate the threat of COVID-19. Yet this health crisis comes at a time when trust in pharmaceutical companies is at an all-time low.

Big pharma has been vilified in the court of public opinion over price hikes, manipulative patent litigation and a rampant opioid addiction epidemic, which is not a good look for an industry predicated on saving lives.

That said, for Hollywood scriptwriters, the villain-to-hero arc is a familiar one. The challenges characters must go through in their arc of redemption can help pharmaceutical brands navigate this next year in the spotlight.

1. A clash of convictions

These complex characters have conviction—deeply rooted reasons why they “must” continue to do the things they do.

While prioritizing patients is at the heart of every pharma corporate mission statement, the industry’s concerns with profits and liabilities have become an opposing force. The COVID-19 pandemic has reinstated a single-minded priority on saving patient lives. Traces of heroism have surfaced in the form of the scientific prowess these companies possess and its quick deployment on behalf of the patients who need it now.

2. Sins of the past

Redemption is a series of choices that help the character mature and get them closer to a greater good.

An $8.3 billion coronavirus package was recently passed in response to the pandemic – and omitted from the final draft was language restricting the industry’s ability to overtly profit from the vaccine. This is just one of many opportunities that will tempt exploitation of the COVID-19 pandemic. How will the power of science be leveraged over people’s health? Among the dozens of companies racing to develop a vaccine, which ones see the payoff as profit and which ones will put patients first?

3. A commitment to change

A true sacrifice lets the audience know the character is permanently committed to good and making a conscious choice to be better, even when it hurts.

The coming weeks and months will reveal the difference between lip service and meaningful, impactful brand behavior. The world is watching and pharmaceutical brands must align their actions with their stated purpose. Some brands have postured early to maximize profit, while others have donated compounds and openly shared intellectual property with the potential to treat the virus. COVID-19 programs will not drive profit, nor should they. However, progress toward a refreshed industry image will bring its own value.

4. A higher calling

In the final scene, the unique strength of the combined characters is revealed as the formula to overcome an opposing force.

Pharma companies are used to working in silos due to the lack of trust and rivalries among them, and COVID-19 is the ultimate test case for whether Big Pharma might at last become full partners in public/private partnerships. In recent days, however, there have been signs of an industry-wide movement bringing together hundreds of companies, top scientific talent and cutting-edge facilities in commercial and non-commercial labs—all with a shared goal of defeating COVID-19. Evidenced by the unprecedented speed at which vaccines are being advanced, this type of open collaboration is the fuel of innovation. When it comes to our health, this should be the rule, not the exception. 

While millions long for a return to normal, there needs to be more recognition that normal wasn’t working for pharma. At their core, brands must be relevant with customer needs. Big Pharma is no different and must embrace the public’s overwhelming interest in an affordable and universally available vaccine. Anything short of this is a self-defeating strategy.

With an economic downturn looming, pressure to eliminate the exploitation of patents and drug pricing reform will only intensify and expedite the need for more transparent and collaborative business models. Pharmaceutical brands that champion affordability and availability and keep these pillars front and center with patients will be hailed as heroes.

Josiah Cope is SVP, strategy at Wunderman Thompson Health