The Pharmaceuticals industry has been under the microscope since the pandemic. While no industry was unaffected, Pharma received special scrutiny as the only industry capable of restoring our pre-COVID-19 way of life through the creation of safe and effective vaccines. Back in November we wrote that as is true with most industries, the most important driver of corporate reputation in Pharma historically was its products and services; but things start to change when COVID-19 hits.

Going back to the start of 2020, we can see in the chart below that at the industry-level, the public placed equal importance on Pharma’s Products as it did on Governance when it came to corporate reputation. As COVID-19 hits in March, though, we see that Product takes the clear lead until July, when Governance gains in importance and remains in the lead for five months:

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But, as we can see above, things change again when Product returns to its historical spot as the most important driver of corporate reputation in December 2020. While it is highly unusual for Product not to be in the number one spot, looking at the data through the lens of COVID-19 vaccine development, an interesting story starts to appear - one with practical lessons for all Communications professionals.

Pharma Rises to the Challenge

Product was the most important driver of Pharma’s corporate reputation before the pandemic, but it became even more important in the first few months. Our hypothesis is that in those early days of fear, economic pain, and lockdowns, the public focused on vaccines (Product) as its ticket back to normal. As the months went on and we began to adapt to a new-normal, however, new concerns such as vaccine safety emerged. The unprecedented speed at which vaccines were being created led to concerns that safety was sacrificed for speed, and it didn’t help that many feared that safety concerns would be outweighed by political ones. As a result, we see the focus shift to creating a safe vaccine, as reflected by the rise in importance of Pharma’s Governance driver that reflects on company’s ethical behavior, compliance, and being open and transparent. In other words, the public didn’t just care if Pharma created a vaccine, they cared that it created a safe vaccine.

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Pharma had a difficult needle to thread: create a vaccine as quickly as possible to end the pandemic, but also reassure a frightened public that safety hadn’t been sacrificed for speed. Through clear and frequent communication, Pharma had built enough trust with the public so that when the first vaccine was approved in December, Governance was no longer the public’s primary concern. 

Another unusual trend we see in the data is a sharp increase in the importance of Performance. As you can see below, Performance, which relates to a company’s financial performance, profitability, and growth prospects, sharply swings up to the right in December and ties with leadership in importance:

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Once again, we can find a likely explanation for Performance’s sharp increase in the timing. Just as vaccines were finally released, and with the public trusting its efficacy and safety of it, everyone cannot wait to get the desired vaccine and get back to the familiar normal. Suddenly, the vaccine pricing is of high importance, as reflected in the rising importance of the Performance driver. Our hypothesis is that Performance became more important as Pharma’s strong prospects for growth are directly related to its ability to quickly vaccinate the globe. If Pharma isn’t profitable or able to grow quickly enough to meet demand, the pandemic cannot end. In that context Pharma’s Performance does have new importance.

What’s Next for Pharma’s Corporate Reputation? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

While the Data Science team’s commitment to rigor prevents us from ‘crystal-ball-predicting’ future outcomes, our proprietary machine-learning modeling indicates that we may expect to see these dramatic shifts continue, especially as more vaccines are approved and governments vaccinate larger swaths of their population. 

How should Communications leaders at Pharma companies prepare for continued change in their Reputation? It all starts with quantitatively measuring your reputation and using data-backed insights to proactively tackle your weaknesses and shoring up your strengths. You can click here to learn how.