Twelve months ago, Novartis began planning its first major corporate advertising campaign since the company was created four years ago by the merger of Swiss pharmaceutical giants Sandoz and Ciba-Geigy. The campaign was scheduled to debut in mid-September—timing that raised serious questions after the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, D.C.
Novartis consulted with its public relations agency, Ruder Finn, which created the ads, and decided to go ahead on schedule, launching its new ad campaign at a time when many marketers were still proceeding with caution.
“The ads are about celebrating life, which we thought was a very powerful message in light of all this,” says Michael Schubert, chief creative officer at Ruder-Finn.
The ads are also about raising the profile of the world’s fifth largest pharmaceutical company, which has maintained a relatively low profile in the United States since the merger. “We began planning about a year ago,” says Greg Baird, head of corporate communications. “Our market research had shown that Novartis had low awareness among its target audience. Those who knew us thought well of us, but the numbers were low. We saw that as a negative, as something we had to fix.”
Pharmaceutical companies have not always recognized the value of a strong corporate reputation. Because their products either save lives or improve the quality of life, consumers are more concerned with the efficacy of individual products rather than the reputation of the company that stands behind them. According to ad tracking company CMR, pharmaceutical companies spent $4.55 billion on advertising last year, with less than 5 percent of that going to corporate advertising. Pfizer is the biggest corporate advertiser, with a budget of $18 million, while Novartis spent just $56,000 on corporate ads last year.
On the other hand, opinion leader audiences—investors and legislators and regulators—are very important to pharmaceutical companies, as are employees and potential recruits.
“Reputation matters,” says Baird. “It’s not so much the ultimate consumer, but even doctors are often oblivious to the manufacturer of individual products. The financial audience is important too, because we listed as an ADR in 2000, and we are trying to expand out American investor base. But for us, the most important resource out there is top talent, and we need to let potential recruits know who we are and what we stand for and we need to be sure our existing employees feel good about us too.”
Ruder Finn’s research indicated that the most important reputation attribute for pharmaceutical companies is trust, ahead of innovation, which is the focus of much of the industry’s communications activity. With that in mind, the theme of the ads is: “Think what’s possible.” Each ad will feature a cancer patient who was on close to death before taking the company’s recently launched cancer drug Gleevec—although the Gleevec brand isn’t mentioned in the ads, which focus on the company’s commitment to research and development.
“Gleevec was a drug where the company took huge risks in response to early clinical trial results and those risks really paid off,” says Baird. The drug was designed to treat chronic myelocytic leukemia, an especially deadly form of blood cancer that strikes about 5,000 people a year in North America. Gleevec was put on a fast track in part because of an Internet petition from potential patients urging the company to invest heavily despite the relatively small market.
Novartis chief executive Daniel Vasella took a personal interest in the drug after receiving several messages from patients, and after a spirited debate within the company—some executives believed its resources would be better applied to products that could help more people—it expanded production “from kilograms to tones. “At the end of the day,” says Vasella, “we are talking about something that can make people live or die.”
Schubert says he considered using quotes from the media and regulators that endorsed the new therapy, but focus groups “didn’t like them and didn’t believe them. The ads sounded pompous and they seemed to over-promise.” Far more effective were the stories of cancer survivors.
The first ad features a man playing baseball with his son, under the headline, “Novartis and John drove his cancer into remission in 56 days.”
“I didn’t think I’d live to teach my son to hit a baseball,” says the man. “Now I believe I’m coaching a future major leaguer.” The ad continues: “No one can promise what the future holds for cancer patients, but today John is winning a fight against his particular form of cancer, enjoying a good quality of life, and realizing his dreams.”
While the ads life affirming message resonated ever more strongly after the terrorist attacks, going ahead with the campaign was a difficult decision.
“There were questions,” says Baird. “Is this time to be advertising? Will the message get lost? I know a lot of companies are watching and waiting before they resume advertising. But we listened to some of the messages from President Bush and others, and they were saying that American business needs to proceed, and we felt we needed to go ahead as planned.”
To address concerns created by the attacks of September 11, Novartis has inserted a message at the bottom of its ads saying that it honors “the thousands of lives that were lost in the tragic attacks on September 11, 2001.” The company has also been active in responding to the tragedy with both cash and product (see sidebar).
The PR team then ran the ads by reporters to garner their reactions.
“We talked with reporters at The Wall Street Journal and Advertising Age and other publications and they all found it interesting that we were going ahead, and they found the message about the value of human life an appropriate one,” says Baird. “In the end, the reporters we spoke with about this were totally unanimous that it was a good idea and a good story.”