Pfizer drones light up night sky in China's remote area with health tips

Pfizer recently used 1,000 drones in a light show to educate the Yi people in southwestern China about the importance of maternity testing, childhood vaccination, washing hands, restraint in alcohol use, wearing a mask and a balanced diet. (Pfizer)

At 7:30 p.m. local time Sept. 23, 1,000 drones ascended into the vast clear night sky above the Baimiao Village in the Chinese city of Xichang. They had a special delivery to make—health tips from Pfizer.

Pfizer recently put on a drone light show in the remote mountain area of southwestern China, where people of the Yi ethnic group, also known as Nuosu, live. For about 20 minutes, the light-bearing vehicles formed different shapes in the sky to relay six basic medical messages. Paired with broadcast commentaries in both Mandarin and Nuosu, the images tried to educate local residents about the importance of maternity testing, childhood vaccination, washing hands, restraint in alcohol use, wearing a mask and a balanced diet.

“We intended to create a meaningful show that conveys the value of health equity,” Nina Yuan, Pfizer China’s employer branding and campus recruitment lead, said in a recent interview. “We wanted to use advanced technology to reach people living in the most far-flung areas and reduce disparities in healthcare.”

Pfizer tapped Shanghai-based creative agency F5 to design and execute the project. Previously, the pair’s unbranded campaign around vaccines, the Mozart 80 concert, won a bronze award at this year’s Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity.

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For the drone show, F5 worked with Xichang’s health authorities to create six proprietary cartoon characters collectively called “The Jikes,” Hongyu Chen, senior strategic planner at F5, told Fierce Pharma Marketing. Jike is the most common surname among the Yi people.

The characters include two grandparents, a dad, a mom, a little girl and an infant, who have their own medical messages relevant to their ages, Chen explained. After the show, the characters can be used again in other formats on various platforms to incorporate more stories for future campaigns, she added.

To start off the show, the drones first formed mountains, clouds and the sun, alongside the Chinese words Daliang Mountains to lay out the background of the story. Six hats in traditional Yi styles showed up next, representing each member of the family.

The first story featured the mom, who was depicted as being pregnant. An ultrasonography transducer was then added to say that women should get maternity tests seven to 11 times during their pregnancy.

Subsequent images included the baby receiving a jab, the little girl washing hands with soap, replacing two bottles of wine in the dad’s hands with a tea pot and a thermos, the grandpa wearing a mask to prevent respiratory disease and the inclusion of different vegetables and fish on grandma’s cooking list.

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Before settling on the specific messages, “we worked closely with the local health sector to get the tips and made sure that what is being projected would be really useful to them,” Sarah de Joya, senior copywriter at F5, said during the interview.

“The program really came from the need of local people; it’s not a unilateral corporate campaign trying to spread medical knowledge we want to share, but it incorporates problematic lifestyle habits shared among local people to solve real problems,” Yuan said. The Yi region’s vaccination rate, for example, is low in the Sichuan province, she noted. Pfizer’s pneumococcal vaccine, known as Prevenar 13 outside the U.S., is popular in China’s big cities.

The campaign also plays into the “Healthy China 2030” strategic plan, Yuan said. Rolled out by the Chinese government in 2016, the blueprint has set forward some ambitious goals, including a 30% reduction of premature death from noncommunicable diseases between 2015 and 2030. As the national plan does, the Pfizer show puts a heavy emphasis on disease prevention.

Earlier this year, Pfizer underwent a rebrand. As CEO Albert Bourla, Ph.D., said at the time, “Pfizer is no longer in the business of just treating diseases—we’re curing and preventing them.”

Toward the end of the performance, the drones reorganized into two hands reaching for each other, one with Yi clothing patterns on its cuff. The other hand can be interpreted as Pfizer or big cities, and the message was about not leaving anybody behind in healthcare, Chen explained.

The drones then outlined Pfizer’s new DNA-themed logo, together with the words “science will win,” as the background commentary told people Pfizer will bring more useful health knowledge in the future. At the end, a giant bar code emerged in the sky, which people can scan with their phone to reach a mobile website containing additional tips featuring the family.

Drones have lately become somewhat of a poster child for Pfizer’s health equity efforts around the world, mainly for their ability to transport drugs and vaccines to hard-to-reach areas. In 2019, the New York pharma unveiled a four-year agreement with Zipline, a medical product delivery company, to help Ghana establish a drone delivery system for health products in some of the nation’s most rural areas.

By choosing drones, “we wanted to prove that Pfizer can reach not just people in bigger cities but people who live far away,” de Joya said. The campaign “didn’t just reach a wider audience—it was projected in the sky—but it was also done in a way that [local people] had never seen before,” she added.

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From a branding perspective, Pfizer had two targets in mind for the campaign. “How can a global brand localize in China without losing its own motto and integrate China’s national strategy in solving a social issue? And how can we deliver Pfizer’s value and what we’ve always strived to achieve in a better way to more people?” Yuan said.

Notice Yuan’s title? The program wasn’t initiated by a marketing team but was actually part of Pfizer China’s annual employer campaign.

“It’s about what kind of brand image the company wants to present itself as [for] the talent market,” Yuan said. “So it’s an HR-led campaign to make biopharma practitioners, medical science specialists and future talents still in their study see Pfizer, believe in Pfizer’s value and join us.”

Pfizer’s China unit is in the process of an overhaul. Last month, the company installed a new China chief in Jean-Christophe Pointeau, who had once led the Chinese operations of Bristol Myers Squibb and Sanofi.

Pfizer recently sold off its consumer health business to a joint venture with GlaxoSmithKline. It also divested its established medicines franchise, known as Upjohn, to Mylan to form Viatris. Both units were once major revenue generators for Pfizer China; Upjohn’s global headquarters were relocated in Shanghai before the divestment.