Emotional empathy is driving brand equity

Views & Analysis
Emotional empathy is driving brand equity

How the COVID-19 pandemic is forging pharmaceutical brands into better shape.

Day by day it becomes clearer that some brands are coming through the pandemic in better shape than ever.  These are the brands that have clearly demonstrated emotional intelligence, that have shown emotional empathy to their target audience. They understand the current, heightened emotional state of their customers and respond to it in ways that show they give a damn. Sometimes it is just about style and tone: like a mother’s soothing words to a crying child that create immediate comfort and calm. Sometimes they go further, and like that same mother applying a soothing balm to a grazed knee, show by their action that they care.

The emotional wave of the moment is all about reliability, the calm in the storm, the trusted friend. Think of the sourdough craze or the social media frenzy around banana bread: in these times of unprecedented uncertainty in relation to life’s fundamentals – health and livelihood – we are reaching out for the warmth of a well-worn comfort blanket.

Simple kindness is one such comfort blanket. Something we want to receive and something we want to give. Each of us is touched by the countless acts of community kindness being shown to the vulnerable. We see the dedication of healthcare workers – or of the shelf-filler in our local store – and we are moved to thank them and to make our own contribution.

Non-pharma brands leading by example

Something was broken before COVID-19 came along. The 2019 Edelman Global Trust Barometer showed levels of mistrust in business to be stratospheric, at their highest point ever. Government and the media didn’t fare any better. Of these three societal pillars, it is, perhaps surprisingly, business that has stepped up to the plate most assuredly in 2020 – led by some of the world’s strongest brands.

“Pfizer has shown remarkable emotional intelligence at a corporate brand level”

Brands are contributing in myriad different, relevant and engaging ways. T-Mobile went into partnership with Verizon, AT&T, and iHeartMedia to give 40,000 phone chargers to hospitals, putting frightened, isolated patients back in touch with loved ones. Verizon also donated $2.5 million to small businesses to support the Local Initiatives Support Corporation and has offered special prices for nurses and teachers. These are acts of kindness appropriate to both the brands and the situation.

Kindness starts with colleagues. Starbucks extended its mental health benefits for members of the team. In partnership with Lyra Health, Starbucks offer personalised, confidential mental health care, free in-person or video sessions, and access to a provider network of mental health therapists and coaches. Microsoft keeps on paying support staff who earn an hourly wage even when there’s nothing much for them to do.

The pandemic is global, so let’s take a quick peek at some beautiful examples from around the globe.

  • In the Philippines, Coca-Cola handed over its precious advertising space to support the COVID-19 relief and response efforts of local communities.
  • Bacardi switched production from its famous rum to ethanol so that hand sanitiser could be manufactured in bulk. Louis Vuitton did much the same thing in France.
  • PepsiCo and partners have provided one million meals a week to rural children in need across the US and Puerto Rico.
  • LinkedIn threw open many of its learning courses for free.
  • Nickelodeon launched a free site to keep kids out of their parents’ hair.
  • In Britain, the venerable BBC launched BBC Bitesize to help parents home-school children. They even launched virtual church services, presumably so those parents could pray for the schools to reopen!
  • New York Magazine, the New York Times and The Economist amongst many other news organisations knocked down their paywalls for COVID-19-related coverage to keep readers informed in a rapidly changing and often confusing environment.
  • At Delta Airlines, the CEO ripped up his pay-check for the year to try and diminish layoffs.
  • Bank of America halted foreclosure sales, evictions and repossessions.
  • CVS facilitated COVID-19 testing in secure areas of parking lots at select stores. Individuals tested haven’t had to leave their car or step into the store.

Big pharma surprises itself

The pharmaceutical industry, often depicted as public enemy number one, has (with a gargantuan leap into the future), seemed to catch the public mood and respond appropriately. There is a scale difference in this transformation.

In 2017 Pfizer was one of the top ten US donors of charitable aid, to the tune of a staggering $210million (or 1.7% or profits) according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, yet still, the organisation doesn’t even appear on the 2019 Axios Harris poll of top 100 reputation ranking. In 2018 the research firm Reputation Institute ranked Pfizer’s reputation at rock bottom on a list of 22 pharma companies – and none of them ranked highly against other sectors!

The data isn’t public yet but today Pfizer holds its head up high and talks about reputation openly and assuredly: clearly confident that there has been a change and that there is more to come. How did that happen? Pfizer has shown remarkable emotional intelligence at a corporate brand level.

“For the moment, the successful brands are the ones that understand the universal emotional tide of the moment. In the future, these brands will need to strive for a differentiating emotional connection”

The change is local and global. To take one local example, in the UK Pfizer is working with the National Schools Partnership to make its Superbugs and Vaccines education program suitable for home learning. Over at corporate HQ, the ambition is as big as it gets, of the moon-shot order in fact, when it comes to defeating COVID-19. Pfizer has four different mRNA platform vaccines in play against one-another: a radical new approach for them. Their chief, Albert Bourla, quoted in Forbes magazine in May, made the new way of thinking and working crystal clear to his team:

“Think in different terms…Think you have an open cheque book…Think that we will do things in parallel, not sequential. Think you need to build manufacturing of a vaccine before you know what’s working. If it doesn’t, let me worry about it and we will write it off and throw it out.”

He was clearly impressed with the way his team responded to the challenge, saying:

“How fast we moved is not something you could expect from big, powerful pharma. This is speed that you would envy in an entrepreneurial founder-based biotech.”

Sharing is caring

From the beginning, Bourla openly authorised having discussions and sharing proprietary information with rival firms. A brave move in the often closeted, secretive world of big pharma. Bourla made Pfizer’s manufacturing capabilities available to small biotech concerns and is in talks to make large quantities of other companies’ COVID-19 drug candidates.

One Pfizer brand getting plenty of attention is Xeljanz, their blockbuster anti-JAK rheumatoid arthritis pill that could damp down the massive immune response that overwhelms some COVID-19 patients. Pfizer is supporting a Xeljanz trial in Italian COVID-19 patients, as well as a US trial that will test a different arthritis medicine, an experimental drug that targets the Irak-4 protein, against the virus.

It is not just Pfizer though: we’ve simply highlighted them because of the low levels of trust the wider community has had in their brand, and because they’re now a great example of what the industry is doing to rebuild brand trust. There are many other mega pharmaceutical companies in the kill-COVID game: Johnson & Johnson, Sanofi, AstraZeneca, GSK and Roche included.

Here’s a mini roundup:

  • Speed of development and partnership are characteristic of many players, ahead of the race is Moderna (working with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases) with a trial under the aptly titled ‘Operation Warp Speed’ now in Phase 3.
  • AstraZeneca has joined forces with GSK and Sanofi to play a socially responsible role in the search for a vaccine and its rapid production. More quietly, AZ has donated nine million face masks to struggling nations.
  • GSK is scouring its portfolio of brands for ones that might impact COVID-19 patient treatment. They’re also investing heavily in trials of the best candidates.
  • Eli Lilly is supporting diabetes patients who are encouraged to call the Lilly Diabetes Solution Center, where they can talk through their options with advisers (including switching to generics).
  • In our own small way, at THE PLANNING SHOP, we are supporting the Hemophilia TalkShop online community as they support one-another in these unprecedented times. The RAM (Rare Advocacy Movement) Living with Rare Disease online community is another heart-warming example where patients are turning out to be a great comfort and source of solace to each other.

There is one final example that convincingly tells us that trust has become immensely important to pharma companies: Chinese clinicians are using an AbbVie HIV treatment to address coronavirus-related pneumonia. Kaletra (also known as Aluvia) contains anti-viral components that block virus replication. Although not yet approved as a treatment for coronavirus, Kaletra has shown efficacy across multiple trial cases.

AbbVie has donated $1.5 million worth of Kaletra to China for use as an experimental treatment option.

Kaletra is vital to AbbVie’s commercial success, yet the company has given up some of the brand’s commercial potential by announcing in April that it wouldn’t defend patent rights to Kaletra. In the event that Kaletra does prove effective against COVID-19, the move would allow competitors to create additional supply to satisfy demand that AbbVie alone can’t meet. That is an astonishing move of generosity that can only inspire admiration and trust.

There are emotions other than comfort and trust

The pandemic has given brands, including pharmaceutical brands, the opportunity to demonstrate emotional empathy by responding to the need for confidence and trust with clear demonstrations of caring. The power of emotional connection has never been clearer. For the moment, the successful brands are the ones that understand the universal emotional tide of the moment. In the future, these brands will need to strive for a differentiating emotional connection.

This is a big ask. There are very few pharma brands not built with an emotional component, but that component rarely has foundations anywhere near as deep as the functional core claim. The generic nature and lack of ownability of the emotional component is clear, if you recognise these four emotional foundations, then you know the problem:

  • Confidence
  • Reassurance
  • Satisfaction
  • Empowerment

To capitalise on the opportunity, pharma brands will need to embrace the growing evidence base of human science behind understanding emotion, and they will have to invest in growing their knowledge.

Acclaimed academics such as Professor Lisa Feldman-Barrett are seeing their work on emotion as a learnt, not innate, trait, become more widely understood, and this is something we’ve been fascinated by at THE PLANNING SHOP. So much so, that we’ve built our new brand creation Thought Model to help our clients build brands with equally strong functional and emotional foundations.

The importance of understanding emotion is creating an exciting new world. The growing ability to understand emotions and to better empathise with customers is revealing new opportunities for brands. There is a growing realisation of the role a brand should play in shaping emotions and impacting deeper with audiences. Perhaps for the first time ever, pharma is well ahead of other sectors in this understanding. THE PLANNING SHOP is daily growing our knowledge and evidence base on how to build an Emotional Brand.

Some brands are coming through the pandemic in better shape than ever because they are showing themselves to be in tune with the times. The next generation of emotionally intelligent brands need to learn from this and start to write the tunes of the future.

About the author

Michael Dumigan is global brand consultant at THE PLANNING SHOP. If you’d like to talk to Michael about this article, please get in touch!



THE PLANNING SHOP is an insight-led brand and communications consultancy of choice for the healthcare industry, with offices in the US and UK.

We dig deeper, go further and challenge perceptions to generate the insight-led business solutions pharmaceutical companies need to grow successful healthcare brands.