Pharma’s reputation problem goes beyond pricing – people don’t know what it stands for

Matthew Hare-Scott argues that renewed attacks on the industry from politicians have much to do with pharma losing sight of its purpose.

As Jeremy Corbyn addressed the audiences at this year’s Labour Annual Party Conference, he made a pledge to create a nationalised drugs manufacturer to create generic versions of drugs that the NHS could not afford. While aimed at the party faithful (which arguably grew smaller following the Tom Watson debacle) the announcement grabbed the attention of many across media, healthcare and business.

The initiative, dubbed “Medicines for The Many”, would see a Labour Government issue “crown use” licenses in an effort to counter increasingly high prices of patented medicines, with Corbyn citing the example of Vertex’s CF drug Orkambi, which took four years to be reimbursed on the NHS due to the health service deeming it unaffordable.

On the face of it, the announcement should be of no great surprise given the leadership’s predilection for nationalisation, and many of those across the health and business were quick to point out the impact any move would have on drug development as well as the UK’s own position as a premier destination in scientific R&D. However, the Labour leader’s speech was tapping into the sentiment that has been growing against pharma practices.

Patient activism campaigning against restricted access to life-saving drugs has become much more visible and commonplace, while in the US Donald Trump has regularly voiced his intention to curb high drug prices ahead of the 2020 elections. Closer to home, former commercial secretary to the Treasury, and economist, Jim O’Neill, has compared the socially destructive practices of big pharma to the behaviour of the banks during the financial crisis. He warned that nationalised industry might be the only way to solve the coming catastrophe of antibiotic resistance.

“Pharma spends a similar amount on R&D as Apple, Google and Facebook but struggles to garner even a fraction of the brand recognition or loyalty of these companies”

From the actions of these unlikely bedfellows, it’s clear that pharma still has a reputation problem –highlighted by a recent Gallup poll which placed the pharma industry in last place out of 25 industries – but perhaps pharma’s current woes are linked to a deeper problem: they’ve lost sight of their purpose.

Given their main business focus, you could argue that pharmaceutical industry has purpose at its core: from developing treatments against cancer, vaccines that can protect and eliminate infectious diseases, to daily regimens that transform diseases that were once a death sentence, such as HIV, into manageable conditions. The science, dedication and passion that delivers these innovations is something that every company talks about, but all struggle to properly articulate well. Think about it – these are companies that spend a similar amount on R&D as Apple, Google and Facebook[i] but struggle to garner even a fraction of the brand recognition or loyalty of these companies, despite the life-changing nature of their work.

Revisiting and clarifying their purpose could help to do just that, by helping the company reconnect to its mission and cultivate a new understanding with stakeholders where they work together for mutual benefit. This would see pharma companies working with healthcare systems as well other public and private organisations to create healthcare solutions covering all aspects of care, with reimbursement based on measurable outcomes. This would help to improve real world evidence capture, bring patient experience to the heart of R&D and improving access to innovative treatments while also demonstrating the company’s commitment to being a long-term partner. All in all, making people a central part of their story rather than just an audience for it.

Furthermore, in a time when more people take societal contribution into account when choosing a brand or a company, this approach would help companies to develop a much more compelling narrative, helping them to improve brand awareness and attract potential employees and partners with similar values.

However, while the rewards of being purposeful are many, it is more than a mere branding exercise.  It requires a company to take stock of how it approaches everything from innovation to access, so that research and development efforts are directed towards the greatest public health needs, rather than just the most profitable ones.  Only when companies start to get this right, will they be able to successfully rebuild their reputation.

About the author
Matthew Hare-Scott is associate director at Porter Novelli. Matt leads on creating award-winning integrated communications programmes for some of Porter Novelli’s major healthcare clients.


[i] Strategy &, PWC, The 2018 Global Innovation 1000 study, available at: