Big Pharma and the Value of the Umbrella Brand

For starters, a quiz: who makes Viagra, Lipitor, Nexium, Plavix, and Prevacid? Now, who made Vioxx, and who makes OxyContin? It is, in some ways, an extreme exercise; but if you can answer the first question, you likely work in Big Pharma.

By Richard S. Levick, Esq. & James Gregory


For starters, a quiz: who makes Viagra, Lipitor, Nexium, Plavix, and Prevacid? Now, who made Vioxx, and who makes OxyContin? It is, in some ways, an extreme exercise; but if you can answer the first question, you likely work in Big Pharma. If you can answer the second, you are in far less exclusive company.
That’s because, for much of the last decade, pharmaceutical companies have operated in near-anonymity unless a major recall or other product liability crisis has dragged their names into the news. What’s most surprising is that the industry seems to prefer it that way.

Their marketing and communications campaigns focus almost entirely on the drugs they make, rather than on the mission of those who make them. It’s a model that has worked well for the Proctor & Gambles of the world. With so many different offerings ranging across so many different categories, it makes sense for these giants of the consumer product marketplace to ensure that the names Tide, Pringles, and Charmin ring out louder than the larger umbrella brand under which they reside.

Big Pharma has its own reasons for taking a similar approach. The first is historical. The pharmaceutical industry has always been driven by products and product promotion. It never occurred to the scientists who built the big companies that developed and sold the products that there was any value in the company name or reputation. This view was reinforced by the idea that the doctors — who in the days before Direct-to-Consumer advertising were the only target audience for drug sales and promotion — were only interested in the drugs, not in the companies that made them.

A second reason is political fear. Big Pharma’s often-contentious relationship with government overseers means that it has been hesitant to stick its head up out of the fox hole, lest it become an easy target for politicians with contrasting agendas. To some, it’s bad enough that the industry gets criticized for pushing the little blue pill. Why risk political problems by aggressively promoting the “good things we do.”

But while Big Pharma’s chosen approach may alleviate these legitimate concerns, it is also one that leaves companies vulnerable to crisis and lagging in brand equity. As such, it might be wise to reexamine whether the benefits of elevating product brands over the umbrella brand are outweighed by the risks to reputation and overall value.

When a pharmaceutical company is alleged to have taken a dangerous drug to market, the ensuing controversy becomes all anyone in the general public knows about the manufacturer. It’s the Vioxx recall that made Merck a household name. Claims that OxyContin is potentially addictive have done the same for Purdue Pharma. Absent any other information about the company, its people, and the life-saving work they do each day, bad news fills the vacuum and dominates the narrative. Then, it isn’t long before doctors, consumers, and investors lose faith and the manufacturer must swim upstream against the dominant perception to recover.


It’s a conclusion that is supported by research. According to statistics compiled by CoreBrand, which develops quantitative data based on proprietary metrics that assign dollar values to corporate brands, pharmaceutical industry brand familiarity of the 13 firms tracked in the category was less than half of the CoreBrand industry average in 2010 and more than 60 percent lower than it was in 1992. As a result, the Pharma industry’s brand equity (measured as a percentage of market capitalization) sits at 2.9 percent — a figure dwarfed by the CoreBrand industry average of 5.6 percent. This is despite the fact that Pharma brand favorability was surprisingly 35 percent higher than the CoreBrand industry average in 2010 (we will return to this figure in a moment).

What this means for the Pharma industry, in which the average company tracked has amassed $86 billion in market capitalization, is that growing the corporate brand to the point at which brand equity reaches the CoreBrand average would translate into $2.3 billion in added market capitalization. For the industry’s major players, whose market capitalization is measured in the hundreds of billions of dollars, the return would obviously be far more substantial.
Now, the industry does enjoy high brand favorability ratings(as noted above), which demonstrates that recent recalls, lawsuits, pricing issues, and other reputation-damaging incidents haven’t significantly impacted the public’s sense that the industry’s work, in general terms, is essential to its well-being. This means that a window of opportunity exists for Pharma companies to boost brand equity and better inoculate themselves against the effects of crisis by simply doing more to inform the public of who they are, what they do, and how they help people live longer, healthier lives.

Your average American might not know any of the specific products that General Electric manufactures; but it is a safe bet that he or she knows that the company “Brings good things to life.” With a similar approach focused more on the company and less on its stable of brands, those in the Pharma business can win similar recognition for being the companies that “Keep good things alive.”
It’s a strategy that was embodied in Bristol-Myers Squibb’s Tour of Hope in 2005, in which cancer survivor and Tour-de-France Champion Lance Armstrong led a team of cyclists on a 3,300 mile cross-country bike ride to raise awareness about the company’s clinical trials of cancer medications. The drugs themselves were a focus of the campaign; but the company stood as its centerpiece. The message that Mr. Armstrong’s awe-inspiring story likely would never have come to pass without the company’s commitment to finding new, more effective cancer treatments was unmistakable. The choice to utilize other “survivors” as Bristol-Myers spokespeople in the ensuing months had an equally powerful effect.
By communicating values and vision — and not just the benefits of their marquee drugs — in such emotional and compelling ways, Pharma companies can provide the public with a sense of what they stand for and what their work really means to the people whose lives are, quite literally, in their hands. In the process, they will build value and be better positioned to protect it when problems arise.

Richard S. Levick, Esq., is the president and chief executive officer of Levick Strategic Communications, a crisis and public affairs communications firm. He is the co-author of The Communicators: Leadership in the Age of Crisis  and Stop the Presses: The Crisis & Litigation PR Desk Reference , and writes for Bulletproofblog. Mr. Levick is on the prestigious list of “The 100 Most Influential People in the Boardroom,” which is compiled by the NACD and Directorship Magazine. Reach him at

James Gregory is a corporate branding and communications expert and the CEO of CoreBrand, a company specializing in quantifying and optimizing brand opportunities for companies ranging from start-ups to the upper echelons of the Fortune 500. He is the author of Marketing Corporate Image, Leveraging the Corporate Brand and The Best of Branding. Mr. Gregory can be reached at



About the author

Richard Levick, Esq. Chairman & CEO of LEVICK, represents countries and companies in the highest-stakes global crises and litigation