COVID vaccines help Pfizer, Moderna reign supreme reputation-wise, but they're a double-edged sword for J&J and AZ

Pfizer and Moderna are now two of the leading pharma companies in the U.S. when it comes to public image, thanks to their COVID vaccines. On the flip side, vaccine rivals J&J and AstraZeneca have seen their reputations plummet. 

This is according to a new survey by market research firm Leger, which looked into how the pharma industry’s reputation has changed during COVID and the creation of new vaccines against the disease.

Pfizer was something of a household name already as a major Big Pharma—and well-known for its branding in Viagra and Lipitor—but Moderna was almost unheard of outside of the industry. That’s changed dramatically since 2019.

“Our study clearly demonstrates that the public was impressed by pharma reaction to the crisis,” the authors of the Leger report said. “The companies that created the most effective vaccines, Pfizer and Moderna, benefited the most.”

The web survey involved 1,014 people in the U.S., 629 with chronic health conditions and 385 without. It was conducted for Fierce Pharma Marketing by Leger from January 7-10 and was set up to reflect the general population of the U.S.

The report found that 58% of those surveyed were aware of Pfizer, the highest awareness level of all pharma companies, with Moderna second at 50%, and J&J and AstraZeneca third and fourth at 43% and 35%, respectively.

Pfizer also had the highest positivity rating: 29% said they saw the company as “very positive” and 32% as somewhat positive—a total of 61% on the positive side. Moderna posted similar scores, at 26% for very positive and 35% for somewhat positive, which also totaled 61% positive.

The report also found that more than half of the U.S. population now has a positive impression of pharma, while one-third said their perception of the industry had improved since the pandemic began.

“There is a sea change happening for the industry,” the report’s authors said. “A growing group of the population sees pharma in a positive light—and the industry can build on this.”

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It’s a real boon for pharma, and it comes amid growing misinformation and anti-vaccine advocates on social media, though this survey would suggest this isn’t cutting through to a negative picture for the industry.

But while the industry basks in a positive glow, two companies have been burned by the spotlight, namely Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca.

Like Pfizer and Moderna, both of these companies made COVID vaccines, but each of them proved less effective than the mRNA shots. They used older technology, and both also suffered from safety woes.

AZ, whose shot still is not authorized in the U.S., also took a hit amid PR missteps last year as it initially misquoted its vaccine efficacy numbers and later had to slightly lower the numbers it had made public.

In the report, AZ's numbers were also poor, coming third worse *after Purdue and J&J in the negative opinion stakes, at 26%, with only 13% viewing the company as highly positive, the second-lowest in the report (Purdue was bottom) and the worst score for all Big Pharmas.

Both companies were trying to do things differently from their mRNA rivals: J&J had a one-dose vaccine, where all others were two-dose regimens. AZ was trying to create a shot that could be sold around the world, and not just to wealthier nations, and initially at least pledged to sell it at cost to make it affordable (though it later reneged on that). 

"Publicity about AstraZeneca had mixed results for the company,” the report found. “Almost a third of the population [is] now aware of the company. While many have a positive opinion of AstraZeneca, there was a tailwind of negativity which may relate to news about the lower efficacy of its vaccine.”

In Leger's survey, J&J scored nearly as poorly as Purdue Pharma, perhaps one of the most detested pharma companies because of its notorious involvement in the opioid epidemic. Thirty-five percent of respondents had a negative view of J&J, compared with 44% for Purdue, which declared bankruptcy in 2019 because of opioid lawsuits. The two companies were at the bottom of the list in terms of pharma company reputation.

J&J wasn't helped by the talc powder legal furor, in which thousands of plaintiffs have claimed the signature baby powder caused cancer. After years of legal battles, last year J&J took the unusual step of splitting off the product into a new company that could declare bankruptcy to escape the legal claims.

On the vaccine front, it looked very good for J&J at first. At the start of 2021, its shot was approved for emergency use. By April, however, concerns about rare side effects prompted officials to pause the vaccine's use.

Then in December, the CDC determined that Pfizer or Moderna vaccines should be recommended over the J&J vaccine, and studies were suggesting a big drop-off in vaccine efficacy for the one-shot regimen. (All the vaccines do appear to wane in efficacy over time.)

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Leger says J&J is in fact the best-known “but least well-liked” major pharma company. There is a bigger knock-on here as well, Leger believes, as J&J’s battered reputation can “negatively impact impressions of its brands and services,” which may well hamper its capacity to sell its drugs and engage with physicians.

The opposite is true for Pfizer and Moderna, both of which may well have a better standing among doctors and patients, and could see a positive effect on their other brands—with Pfizer the biggest winner.

“Pfizer leads the industry for positive impressions,” the report found, and it can really work a benefit out of this. “Patient consideration of Pfizer vaccines will be high, and positive perceptions can spill over into its communications about the company, its brands and patient support programs,” the report found.

“The pharma industry is in a place of great potential when it comes to ongoing reputation building,” explained Corporate Reputation Expert, Dave Scholz. EVP at Leger, to Fierce Pharma Marketing.

“With the very positive reputation measures held by Pfizer and Moderna and the positive reputation of the industry as a whole due to the halo effect of the ongoing discussions around vaccine creation and efficacy, the industry and individual pharma companies have an opportunity to cement this positive perception which will help them for years to come.

“What they do next is critical to how the consumer continues to perceive them and the long-term benefit they can realize.”