Less corporate, more human: How Sanofi is using the Olympics to change public perceptions

Pharma watchers know Sanofi has changed how it presents itself to the world. Under CEO Paul Hudson, Sanofi has pitched itself as humble, authentic, a bit unconventional—and changed its branding to match. But people in the wider world? Well, reaching them poses a different challenge. Sanofi’s attempt to rise to that challenge is supported by a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: a Summer Olympics in France.  

With months to go until the games, Sanofi, one of the sponsors, is ramping up preparations. Josep Catllà, senior vice president, head of corporate affairs at Sanofi, discussed the project in the hours after holding a press conference to reveal the Olympic torch will stop at some of the company’s sites. The event was attended by one healthcare journalist who often covers Sanofi. All the other journalists were from areas, such as sports, beyond the healthcare beat.

That ability to reach a broader set of journalists, and by extension a wider swath of society, was part of the case for sponsoring the Olympics when Catllà first discussed the idea with Hudson in 2020. At that time, Hudson was in the early months of a push to modernize the company—and Catllà was considering how to position Sanofi. The Olympics fell at a point in the plan that Catllà felt the “new Sanofi” would be taking shape and ready to showcase to the world.

“From the beginning, there's been an element of ‘we want to show that we are changing as a company’. But we are going to do it in what we believe is the right way, which is brought by Sanofians, our own employees, rather than corporate messaging. We felt the Olympics was a more human interaction that you could have with people,” Catllà said. 

The goal is to show Sanofi is “a company of people that work for people, people who do research and development and commit to the commercialization of medicines for people in need of treatment,” the Sanofi SVP said. That thinking has led Sanofi to draw parallels between the work its people do to get new medicines to patients, and the work athletes do to become elite performers who compete for medals.

Sanofi is working with 14 athletes, seven in the Olympics and seven in the Paralympics, who support a cause that is aligned with its views. Members of “Team Sanofi,” who will compete for various countries at the games, are “very active in the fight against racism,” “devoted to bringing a voice to women” in Saudi Arabia and otherwise using their platforms to drive change. 

Catllà believes the message is getting across in France, where people are “starting to see a new Sanofi that is less corporate and more human.” Sanofi is pushing the same message outside its home country. Catllà, the first person from outside France to lead communications at Sanofi, discussed the role the company’s French foundations play in how it presents itself to the wider world.

“In communications, I like to use what I call ‘the French touch’ on everything we do because there's an element of sexiness,” Catllà said. The French touch sets Sanofi apart from its largely American peers, and the colonial links between France and countries in Africa and Southeast Asia mean the company has a long-standing presence in some parts of the world where its rivals are less well-established.

The Olympics, an event that was watched by 3 billion people in 2020, gives Sanofi the chance to deliver a message about how it is changing to people around the world. Key stakeholders continue to have doubts about aspects of the strategy—Sanofi’s stock is yet to recover from the October decision to prioritize investment over margins—but the machinery to try to change minds about the company is now in place. 

“There was no manual on how this would work because we've never done it before. But I am lucky to work with some very creative minds. They are now fully dedicated to this project,” Catllà said.