Addressing the two major consumer concerns–transparency in drug development and pricing–can be challenging, as many people do not have the interest in truly engaging with scientific evidence or reading financial statements. But one expert noted that the pandemic might stimulate much deeper and sustained interest in the clinical trial process and new technologies such as mRNA platform therapies, and that scientific experts—including those in the mass media—can help in breaking down scientific information for consumers.
Developing a strategy—one that conveys both competence and intent—to make the industry and the companies that are in it more trustworthy should start at the top of the organization. In speaking with public relations professionals, a common theme in building trust was the tone set by the CEO in supporting a company culture that fosters it—both internally and externally. These experts pointed to several key elements of a successful communications strategy (figure 9):
• Feature leaders—especially CEOs: People connect with other people, not with companies. Strong leaders should showcase their humanity by telling stories, share their personal reasons for working in the industry, and be vocal about the value their products bring to patients. Experts said that consumers haven’t historically heard strong stories or vision, or seen much of a presence from biopharma leaders and/or scientists—unlike those from big tech companies, for example—but that trend is beginning to change, particularly as consumers pay more attention to innovation in science.
• Cultivate partnerships: The most trustworthy organizations are most likely to be able to establish relationships with other types of entities (e.g., consumer groups, foundations, academia) that in turn help improve trust in the company’s name.19 In fact, if biopharma companies partnered with technology companies to bring innovative products to market that perhaps also capitalize on the momentum of technology adoption in health care during the COVID-19 pandemic, it could be reputationally transformative for the industry. Two other key groups to consider engaging include the following:
o Physicians, nurses, and pharmacists, who are more trusted than drug companies, can help talk about products, including the COVID-19 vaccines, with patients and should be leveraged as channels for education and building trust.
o Patient advocacy groups are an important link between manufacturers and customers, particularly when it comes to understanding the patient journey and building trust around specific products and could also be important to recruitment for clinical trials.
• Build analytic capabilities: To understand the various segments with which the company interacts and what drives trust for them, and to develop measures that capture areas to improve on, biopharma companies should invest in comprehensive, advanced analytics on an ongoing basis.
o Put always-on consumer data collection systems in place. Using the latest technologies and experience management platforms can enable companies to collect data, both actively and passively, and gain insights in the moment and over time.
o Conduct consumer surveys, especially those that measure trust-building actions for humanity, transparency, reliability, and capability. These can provide data to benchmark trust in a company or a brand relative to another and over time.20 The same data could also be synced with other data to feed algorithms that spur next best actions for patients, such as reminders to fill prescriptions or to talk to their doctor about the current medication.
o Use analytics to potentially diagnose vulnerabilities at the organizational level as well. Trust levels across domains within the organization, including strategic governance, company culture, customer experience, or data integrity, could be impeding efforts to deliver products and services competently and with sincere intent, and should be identified and prioritized accordingly.
• Prioritize listening and customer experience: Companies should leverage digital technology and presence—including maintaining a patient-centric website—to engage with patients, who will be actively living with and discussing their conditions through a variety of forums. It’s worthwhile to be part of those conversations, whether through social media, apps, or other channels, and to respond to concerns and queries appropriately. Companies should also consider additional modes of engagement through digital companions to support medication adherence, track outcomes, and provide data to providers and links to other patients.
• Engage with the market consistently and continuously: Building trust is not “one and done,” nor something that can happen with a single marketing campaign. Multiple-channel campaigns that are consistent over time and have strong proof points can be ideal. Challenges in action and experience are inevitable over a company’s lifetime, and resilient and responsive organizations—ones that are open to learning from consumers—can weather these challenges. To that end, one expert pointed out that it is also important for the industry to band together—in a timely fashion—when “bad actors” in biopharma appear. This demonstrates accountability for behaviors or practices that are not representative of how the rest of the industry wants to, or plans to, operate. Historically, she said, we haven’t always seen this happen.
Perhaps most important to a discussion on consumer trust in biopharma is a recognition of the health care industry’s overall purpose—to make patients’ lives better. Unlike getting a new smartphone or a luxury vehicle, access to health care and medicines are a necessity. Patients who are seeking health care products and services—which can make the difference between life and death—are often at a low point and don’t want to feel like they are being “kicked while they are down.”21 As a result, biopharma companies are often held to an unparalleled standard when it comes to motive and profit, even though continued innovation and product availability depend on it. Building trust is a critical pathway to demonstrating the true value that biopharma companies and the rest of the health care system bring to society while also being accountable to shareholders and stakeholders.