Celebrity plus-ones: Meet the new pharma patient, physician and lifestyle micro-influencers of 2020 and beyond

Serena Williams for AbbVie Ubrelvy migraine med campaign
While celebrities like tennis star Serena Williams will continue as spokespeople for pharma, a new group of influencers is joining them. (AbbVie)

Welcome the new pharma celebrity influencers: Social media-savvy patient advocates, specialty docs and even lifestyle gurus are all speaking up in pharma product and awareness campaigns.

Of course, that doesn’t mean celebrity endorsers are going away. Pharma companies continue to hire them, but more strategically—and with 40% of consumers turning to social for health information these days, those deals will always include social media.

Trusted influencers now might be patients who themselves command specific audiences, such as the patient-leaders WeGo Health helps pharma companies find with its July-launched platform. The tool co-creates social media content such as posts, images and videos with the patients, who then use it as sponsored content on their personal social channels.

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“We facilitate the connections, but also grow partnerships between patient and pharma,” Richelle Horn, WeGo Health’s senior director of marketing, said.

While physician key opinion leaders aren’t new as spokes-educators for pharma, key online opinion leaders (KOOLs) or connected opinion leaders (COLs) are the newer terms pharma is using. Much like their social-savvy consumer counterparts, digital docs hold sway and trust with peer and patient followers.

“If this is a word, it’s the celebrization of scientists. Instead of sports heroes or sitcom heroes or whatever heroes, now we’re seeing that ‘Fauci effect’ and seeing science, medicine and healthcare workers elevated to that celebrity status that they deserve,” said Kara Dugan, president of Razorfish Health, adding, “they really make a difference and influence, whether that’s patients or their peers.”

Celebrity actors or musicians or TV show hosts still fall into this category, but the big change is relevance. Today’s celeb endorsers are usually patients themselves, and they can tell engaging stories of their relatable struggles—and command significant social status online.

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This year, for instance, both tennis phenom Serena Williams and reality star Khloe Kardashian spoke out about their migraine problems and the acute treatments that helped them. Williams, with 12.7 million Instagram followers, stars in a TV and digital campaign for AbbVie’s Ubrelvy. Kardashian, with 124 million Instagram followers, leads a social and TV effort for Biohaven Pharmaceuticals' Nurtec ODT.

Although pharma marketing was uniquely digitally focused on efforts like these in 2020 because of the pandemic, this is one trend that will continue to grow and evolve in 2021 and beyond, especially for younger target audiences.