2022 forecast: Marketing COVID vaccines and drugs, and how pharma, not brands, are taking center stage

Pharma companies moved front and center when it came to COVID, with branding taking the back seat.

COVID has brought the words of the pharma industry into people’s lives like never before: Moderna, Pfizer, BioNTech, AstraZeneca and Merck have become household names, and, while you might not remember the names of their products, you will know the company.

That's been good for pharma's reputation but has left marketers in a bind about branding.

Many of the drugs and vaccines were handed out on an emergency basis, meaning they did not get full approval; as AstraZeneca and others have pointed out to Fierce Pharma Marketing, this means they are hamstrung in terms of how they promote these drugs. This issue will bleed into next year and will also require close examination about what happened.

In essence, for vaccines at least, getting the message out has been done all around the world every day by the mass media and by word of mouth in a way the pharma industry has never seen before.

It was also one of those rare instances where CEOs of those companies, like Pfizer’s Albert Bourla, Ph.D., were personally tweeting out the need for his product.
According to Merriam-Webster, the word “vaccine” saw a 601% increase in look-ups this year compared to last, and became, perhaps unsurprisingly, its word of the year in 2021. (I wouldn’t be surprised if this changes to “booster” in 2022.)

I got the Regeneron

But what we have learned from COVID marketing is that brand names for COVID treatments and shots don't matter. “I got the Pfizer shot,” (the name of the company that created it, not the drug’s name), have replaced Comirnaty, Covishield and Spikevax.

The media controls a lot of the coverage for the names, and this is no surprise, given that the names have to go through a process and be OK’d with regulators. Most drug names before a brand are a mealy-mouthed mix of letters and numbers or unpronounceable ingredient names. So it makes sense that it boils down to the pharma company’s name making it.

With COVID vaccines and drugs, that has changed, because these products are saving the world; having your company associated with that boosts your reputation, and the wider world knows who you are.

Pharma reputation

This past year has seen the public’s view of the industry wax and wane: In August, new data out from The Harris Poll, which tracked key issues around pharma’s reputation, saw its standing slide throughout the year. After a February high of 62% approval, this started to trend down to 60% in May and then 56% in June and down further in August to 53%, but up a little, to 56%, in September.

But that belies a general increase in its reputation: Before the COVID-19 pandemic, a "baseline" 32% of the U.S. public had a positive opinion of the pharmaceutical industry, but even at that 53% recorded in the summer, it’s still flying relatively high.

Since the start of last year, pharma has in fact seen the biggest gains of any sector in Harris' routine polls. Its slide throughout the year however may be indicative of a trend for 2022; new boosters and antivirals are incoming, but it’s likely that pharma won’t be getting the high-end and mainly positive media coverage it was in early 2021, so it could drop further.

This is especially true when we start to see the major profits coming in for the likes of Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech, which could reach more than $100 billion collectively in sales by this time next year when you factor in boosters and a new drug from Pfizer. What looks like wartime profiteering, and with around half the world (mainly the poorer half) still struggling to gain access to their first shots, let alone boosters, don't be surprised if its reputation starts to come back to baseline.

Pfizer is the one to watch here in terms of marketing. Just this month, as we head into 2022, it released several new TV adverts plugging itself more than its vaccine. The first is about how unremarkable things become remarkable again; tacitly, the ad is making the point that via Pfizer and BioNTech's vaccines, they have helped return the world to normal. The other ad is from a basketball player suggesting you "Don't Miss Your Shot," slightly more direct than the first.

Even with the capacity to market its shot, as it was fully approved earlier this year, Pfizer is still playing things softly, a theme that will continue into next year.

Moving from marketing COVID vaccines to new drugs

Whilst vaccines essentially sold themselves, things will, however, almost certainly be different for COVID drugs, the next munition in the arsenal against this pandemic, as we move from the shield to the sword and perhaps from the pandemic stage to an endemic one.

Things on the therapeutic side of things had a tougher start than vaccine development: Early on many drugs, both new and repurposed, fell by the wayside as they tried and failed to help COVID patients once they had the disease.

That dire situation has slowly but surely changed direction, with antibody drugs from the likes of Regeneron and Eli Lilly in 2020 helping some patients early on in their disease, and new pills from Merck, AstraZeneca and Pfizer also now being ramped up to help combat the virus.

This becomes more essential as the virus mutates its way through the Greek alphabet, with Delta and now Omicron finding ways around the older antibody meds and making the need for strong antivirals paramount if newer variants find more ways around vaccine protection.

These drugs all need to be used at certain times, in certain ways and in certain patients; communicating that to the wider world will be a tough job for marketers, as there is no set market: pretty much anyone could end up needing these drugs, either as a treatment or prophylaxis, and many will be at their homes or in primary care when they can work best.

There is also the marketing issue surrounding the emergency use authorization. As it's not approved, you can't undertake a full marketing campaign.

This will certainly make things more tricky for the company and is an unusual situation; with no full approval, marketing plans become difficult to implement. Getting around that will remain a major challenge to overcome in 2022.

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