Pharma In 2016 Rio Olympics

On August 4, 2016, the ‘Adweek’ – a well-known weekly American advertising-trade publication, reported that even a day before the games began, the national ad sales revenue of just one major network in ‘2016 Rio Olympics’ had set a new record for itself, exceeding a never before turnover of US$ 1.2 billion. This figure is believed to be the most of any network for any media event in the history of the United States, and includes broadcast, cable and digital advertising.

The strongest advertising categories include automotive, beverages, telecommunications, insurance, movie studios and pharmaceuticals, as the advertisers were exceptionally bullish on Rio Games, the report highlighted.

Another report, published in the August 9, 2016 edition of ‘U. S. News’, states that the Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton also aired US$ 13.6 million in campaign commercials during this Olympic games, far exceeding her nearest rival, seeking to reach the millions of television viewers who can’t skip past the commercials as they watch live coverage of the Olympics. This example underscores the perceived importance of Olympic events to various types and genres of advertisers.

My article will focus on this new found interest of many global pharma companies, their level of participation, with an idea of approximate expenditure to be incurred to run various types of ad campaigns in such well-awaited global events, held once in every four years.

The key advantages and the potential:

One of the key advantages of advertisements during Olympic games is their much larger captive audience and eyeball grabbing power, in every respect, both global and local. This, in turn, offers an attractive opportunity to the advertisers to exploit its immense potential for shaping and re-shaping public opinion and preferences, on various target areas.

Probably for this reason, a wider spectrum of new advertisers, including pharma players have now started favoring this event more than ever before.

Entry of pharma:

According to available reports, about 20 pharma brands and companies ran 293 TV ads during the coverage of Rio Olympic games. Some of these companies ran brand advertisements, while some others selected non-brand disease awareness campaigns, or in a very few instances – both.

According to real time TV ad tracker, pharma contributed US$ 45 million and occupied the mid-space of the table for blockbuster TV advertisers, during the 17-day Rio events.

Two types of marketing strategies followed:

In Rio Olympics pharma companies had opted for primarily two different types of marketing strategies, as follows:

  • Product branding
  • Corporate branding, mainly through disease awareness

Global majors such as, Pfizer (for pain management – Lyrica and anti-inflammatory – Xeljanz), Novo Nordisk (Antidiabetic – Victoza), Bayer and Johnson & Johnson (anticoagulant – Xarelto) and Lundbeck and Takeda (antidepressant – Trintellix), appeared to be brand focused.

Whereas, companies such as, Merck and Mylan were disease awareness focused. Pfizer seemingly opted for both product branding and R&D focused corporate branding.

‘Product Branding’ versus ‘Corporate Branding’:

Product branding is defined as a marketing strategy wherein a business promotes and markets an individual product without the company name being at the center in the advertising campaigns.

Corporate branding, on the other hand, is broadly defined and explained as, the practice of promoting the brand name of a corporate entity, as opposed to specific products or services. The activities and thinking that go into corporate branding are different from product and service branding, because the scope of a corporate brand is typically much broader.

The success parameters:

A product branding is considered successful when it pushes up both the top and the bottom lines of the brand, with a commensurate increase in its top of mind recall and market share.

Whereas, a corporate branding is considered successful, when consumers hear or see the name of the company they will associate with a unique value and positive experiences. No matter what product or service the corporation offers, the corporate name is always an influence.

If I am to cite just one example out of many, and outside the pharma industry, I would say, ‘Apple’ has been established as a powerful corporate brand that focuses on the strength of its name as much as the features of any ‘Apple’ products.

Thus, for any successful corporate brand, the name would immediately evoke a positive reaction in the consumers’ mind, without any detailed list of product features, and for which many consumers would be willing to pay even a premium price, without any grudge or grumble.

Those who kept away from hard selling of a brand:

In Rio Olympics, as stated above, according to recent reports, some large pharma companies, interestingly, preferred to keep themselves away from hard selling of any of their brands. They, on the contrary, chose to make use of this powerful event to facilitate much wider public engagement with important and interesting health issues, like disease awareness, through craftily produced TV clips. The key intent is, of course, enhancing their corporate image to the public at large, for sustainable and long term business excellence.

A few such examples, as witnessed during Rio Olympics, are as follows:

  • Merck ran an eyeball grabbing, top class and emotional disease awareness ad for HPV vaccinations.
  • Mylan ran its “Face Your Risk” ad. This clip advises people with allergens to talk to their doctor about a prescription treatment for severe reactions, because every six minutes, someone with life-threatening food allergies is sent to the hospital.

Pfizer, in addition to brand promotion, also ran an interesting, yet fact based campaign, titled “Before it Became a Medicine”. This ad narrates an emotive story of bringing a medicine to life, which is no different from any other process of creation. It requires innovation, imagination, and restless perseverance in the face of obstacles, both expected and unforeseen.

One is a double-edged sword:

Strong high profile brand promotion in the global events such as Rio Olympics, could well be perceived as a double edged sword, having both the up and the downsides.

The upside is of course a strong boost in the sales and profit of the concerned brands. However, there is also a significant downside. When the details of huge pharma marketing expenditure, just on TV ads and also for only a 17- day event though important, would come to public knowledge, it could add more fuel to the fire on the ongoing public criticism towards humongous marketing expenditure, incurred by some pharma players, which at times exceeds the same for even R&D.

This is important, as a very large number of different stakeholders, including the patients, firmly believe that such ‘unnecessary’ expenditures on brand marketing, are ultimately passed on to the final consumers or the payers in terms of high pricing of those brands. Whereas, the possibility of triggering such type negative public opinion, with similar ads and during the similar events, with corporate brand or disease awareness campaigns, I guess, would be rather slim or improbable.

Let me hasten to add, I strongly believe that sales and marketing are absolutely necessary for pharma brands, just as any other branded consumer durables or non-durables. Nevertheless, I would also not brazenly ignore the prevailing reality, and the public optics associated with this sensitive issue, in any way.

How much does it cost?

To answer this question, I would try to give just a feel of the type of deep pocket that an interested pharma advertiser would require to have to get involved on such interesting ball game. During Rio Olympic games, the top three high spending pharma brands, reportedly, were as follows:

  • Pfizer (the pain medication Lyrica): US$ 9.1 million
  • Pfizer (the anti-inflammatory Xeljanz): US$ 5.7 million
  • Novo Nordisk (GLP-1 diabetes treatment Victoza, which featured Olympic gold medal basketball player Dominque Wilkins): US$ 9.2 million

It is worth noting that the top spending brands for consumer product such as Chrysler, spent US$ 25 million on one commercial, along with US$ 15.2 million on another. Similarly, Samsung spent US$ 17.1 million on one ad and US$ 12 million on another one.

Is there any right approach?

Instead of trying to pontificate on what sort of approach is right or wrong for pharma companies in these global events, I would only elucidate, what type of marketing approach could possibly be able to create and leave a stronger and long term residual impact on the viewers’ mind, considering the prevailing global scenario and the general sentiment towards the pharma companies, in general.

I reckon, in the events like the Olympics, it is possible for a pharma player to reap a rich harvest and get a long-term dividend with media outreach, carefully keeping away from hard-selling of clearly identifiable brands. The well-created campaigns may focus primarily on the softer aspects of public health care, such as, caring for patients, disease awareness, making life more enjoyable while fighting a disease, bringing newer drugs for better life, or even achievements in the space of corporate social responsibility.


Global events such as Rio Olympics, could be well leveraged by the individual pharma players, especially to revamp the generally declining public image for greater overall business predictability and sustainability.

The types of corporate branding that some of us had witnessed in Rio Olympics, have the potential to significantly help achieving this objective.

The realization of the fast declining negative public image of pharma, in general, appears to have dawned on its global trade organizations only now. This has indeed been a long saga, though many pharma players still ignore it, rather unabashedly.

The broader impact of the creation of a positive and robust corporate public image with direct connects with consumers through the relevant ads such as on diseases awareness, could be profound, also for a sustainable business growth, even in a country like India.

Thus, the entry of pharma companies in the widely viewed global events, such as the 2016 Rio Olympics, unravels yet another new strategic platform for many other players. Its multiple judicial use, in tandem with other business blueprints, could facilitate the industry to effectively neutralize and navigate through the strong headwind of negative public perception, while managing the challenge of change.

By: Tapan J. Ray 

Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion. 


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