To avoid DTC dips and communication snafus, pharma marketing shifts amid COVID-19 crisis

Pharma marketing, like the rest of the ad industry, is in a state of flux brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Concerns and debates are swirling around whether drug ads should scale back, if drugmakers should change messaging to be more serious or if they should delay direct-to-consumer drug launch campaigns.

So far, pharma and healthcare advertising hasn’t dropped precipitously, but that drop-off could be coming. Pharma won’t be entirely immune to an advertising downturn—89% of all advertisers said they've been disrupted by COVID-19, with one-third reporting cancelled campaigns, according to a recent Advertiser Perceptions survey

“Initially we saw a little bit of contraction, but that seemed to be pure panic of what everyone was facing,” Jennifer O'Dwyer, president of Evoke in North America, said. “We’re still too early on to say. If there’s going to be a drop in spending, it might show up in Q3. Right now, we’re seeing that viewership is up and clients are committing to media plans because consumers are home now.”

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The fine line of advertising, especially for pharma and especially now, is how to continue to get the word out about products but also avoid casting more noise into the “infodemic” that’s occurred alongside the pandemic, said David Kyne, CEO at Evoke Kyne.

Pharma companies' decisions to change marketing plans depends on their involvement in the crisis, he said. Drugmakers directly involved in COVID-19 testing, treatment or vaccine discovery, for instance, should talk about efforts and let people know exactly what they’re doing.

Pharma companies in the next tier are those with treatments for conditions that might be more greatly impacted by COVID-19, such as those for people with diabetes or heart disease that are thought to be at greater risk from the disease, or lupus and cancer patients who may have treatment disrupted. Those companies should also be communicating about issues specific to each condition. Kyne said the second group should look to work with advocacy groups to better target and fine-tune the appropriate custom message.

The third group, then, is every other drugmaker. While those pharma companies shouldn’t abandon marketing either—patients still need treatments and healthcare professionals need information and education about those treatments—they should carefully consider communications.

“There is still an appetite for communications around health conditions and treatments, but it needs to be thoughtful,” Kyne said.

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“Tone is everything right now,” O'Dwyer added. “You’re likely going to see a shift in tone in communications to patients that’s more supportive. Not necessarily a more serious tone, because I think sometimes pharma is already tainted with that brush at times, just more reassuring.”

One communication that many pharma companies have already dialed up is messages to thank healthcare providers, nurses and doctors, pharmacists and others on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis, O'Dwyer said.

Pfizer’s pinned tweet, for instance, is a video talking about the light that shines from ambulance workers, doctors, nurses and scientists with the ending sentiment: “Thank you for being our light." Merck’s pinned tweet is a collage of employees saying thank you to the “heroes” on the front lines. Both AbbVie and Novartis' Twitter header images are thank-you notes to healthcare workers and other front-line helpers.