Each one of us – individually or collectively in a society, community or even as a supporter of anyone or anything, view certain things in a certain way, and tend to believe only this is true. This process consequently leads to developing a ‘perception’, which the Oxford dictionary defines as: “The way in which something is regarded, understood, or interpreted.”
A ‘perception’ once formed, creates a long-lasting impact – helps form a strong opinion, often making people judgmental in their expressions. Based on ‘perception’, people also try to act and influence others, which are not always in a persuasive manner. On the contrary, the methods, are at times rather coercive, using fear as the key. The sources that help create ‘perceptions’ may not be genuine, often fake or doctored and picked-up from half-baked, unproven and unverified provenance.
Just as any other business, in pharma industry too, stakeholder ‘perception’ plays a critical role, especially in building or tarnishing reputation of the sector or individual companies. In this article, I shall discuss, the importance of managing perception – the right way – overcoming a key barrier, for sustainable business success.
‘Perception’ often stands between success and failure or winning and losing:
In today’s world ‘perception’ often stands between success and failure or winning and losing, more than ever before. Creating and maintaining a ‘positive perception’ is time consuming and a challenging task, for anything. Interestingly, a negative ‘perception’ may also be deliberately created for self-serving purposes, and that too in a much shorter time. Although, there is a high financial cost attached to it, such instances aren’t too few, either.
Umpteen number of instances can be cited, in this regard. However, to drive home the point, let me quote just two examples – the first one is of a negative ‘perception’ mostly created by the industry from within. The other one – again a negative perception that prevails outside the industry, but mostly created due to the acts pursued within the industry. Interestingly, both these adversely impact the pharma consumers too, and are tough to neutralize.
1. ‘Perception’ created by the industry insiders:
The general ‘perception’ that ‘branded generic drugs’ are superior to more affordable ‘non-branded generic medicines’, mostly in terms of overall quality, efficacy and safety. This negative ‘perception’ has been successfully created without enough credible scientific evidence, and irrespective of names, size and the operational scale of the manufacturers. It is worth noting, both need drug regulatory approval and all such approvals come only in the generic names – and not in any brand name. The brands for a generic drug molecule may be as many as, say sixty or hundred, or even more. So are the numbers of ‘non-branded generics.’
To enable the consumers availing benefits of this category of drugs in reducing out of pocket expenditure on medicines, both the State and the Central Governments in India are trying hard through various measures, such as ‘Jan Aushadhi Scheme’. But the negative perception towards ‘non-branded generics’ doesn’t seem to wane a bit, in the face of an ongoing campaign to maintain the status quo.
2. ‘Perception’ created outside, due to the acts of the industry:
Similarly, the general negative ‘perception’ leading to a declining reputation of the industry, prevails across the world – even in India. Again, the issues leading to such negative perception may, at times, be grossly exaggerated and generalized. But the fact remains, despite serious attempts by individual companies and their lobby groups to negate the same, it continues to exist. Nevertheless,continuing efforts by the industry in this direction, which are often quite expensive, are visible globally.
Let me illustrate this point quoting a recent media report on PhRMA – arguably the largest pharma trade body globally. As the pharmaceutical industry faces potential pricing reform and continued criticism from patient advocates, PhRMA reportedly spent US$ 15.5 million lobbying in the first half of this year, which is an 11.5 percent increase (US$ 1.6 million) compared with the same period last year. But, the negative ‘perception’ is too strongly entrenched to neutralize so quickly and effectively. It continues to exist.
That the money spent to alleviate the impact of negative ‘perception’ has not yielded results since long, is vindicated by the June 19, 2018 Business Insider report. Quoting the research and consulting firm Reputation Institute, it says, in 2018, the pharma giants saw a 3.7 percent decline in reputation score from last year. This was driven by a decline in the public perception of transparency, openness and authenticity of drug makers. In the midst of an overall descending trend, of the 22 pharma companies ranked, Sanofi features in the first and Pfizer takes the last positions.
Reported practices of drug makers also influence public ‘perception’:
While explaining why Pfizer has been ranked 22 with a strong negative ‘perception’, the same Business Insider article reported as follows:
“Pfizer had the lowest reputation score among the pharmaceutical companies that the Reputation Institute looked at, based on the general public’s perception of the product, prices and public hospitality. It was reported in May that Pfizer used charity to mask a heart drug price hike. Pfizer also had a huge role in the drug shortage crisis, according to Fortune.”
Similarly, in a relative yardstick, better public ‘perception’ for Sanofi’s among the big pharma players were ascribed to the following reasons:
“Sanofi’s winning characteristics lies in its promotion of ethics and transparency, according to Reputation Institute. Sanofi has in the past year promised to limit price increases and disclose ‘transparency reports’ behind overall costs of its drugs.”
Destructive power of negative ‘perception’ on pharma industry:
An interesting survey, titled “Restoring trust in the pharmaceutical industry by translating expectations into actions” conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) Health Research Institute captures the realities of ‘perception’ on the pharma industry. Pharmaceutical industry executives, consumers, and stakeholders, such as doctors in physician groups, researchers in academia, former health policy makers, hospital executives, managed care organization executives, participated in this survey.
The paper highlighted that ‘perception’ driven peoples’ behavior is triggered by a myriad of reasons attributing to the recent loss of trust of key pharma stakeholders’, such as regulators, payers, physicians, and patients. The authors suggested, the industry should act to restore trust as the central tenet of all of its relationships.
Two major perceptions of pharma consumers and stakeholders were captured, as follows:
- A high percentage of pharmaceuticals in the total healthcare costs, distorts the value–for–money argument used by the industry.
- The process and the nature, extent and quantum of money spent on pharmaceutical sales and marketing lack transparency, especially with respect to drug risks and benefits.
Constructive power of positive ‘perception’ needs to be strengthened:
Likewise, the constructive power of positive ‘perception’ needs to be strengthened.
Let me illustrate this point with three examples out of many. The first two examples come from the pharma players in India, and the third one from a top non-pharma giant.
- To add public confidence to the corporate brand and strengthen its image among its stakeholders in India, Mankind Pharma appointed Amitabh Bachchan as the brand ambassador. The company wants to primarily emphasize the importance of good health and affordable treatment for all.
- To enhance public ‘perception’ and corporate reputation further, Abbott rolled out a corporatecampaign in India – ‘live life to the fullest.’ The advertisement communicates to the people in an interesting way that “At Abbott, we’re all about helping you live the best life you can through good health. We keep your heart healthy, nourish your body at every stage of life, help you see clearly, and bring you information and medicines to manage your health. Every day and around the world, we’re discovering new ways to make life better.”
Since,the public ‘perception’ of pharma keeps getting worse, let me illustrate the point of constructive power of ‘perception’ from the huge success of several companies from the tech industry. As featured in Tech Times on July 23, 2016, in the ‘perception strength’ of customers in the world on a yearly basis, Apple Inc ranked the world’s top company in 2016 followed by Microsoft.This survey conducted by FutureBrand asked 3,000 customers to rank the big enterprises by 18 different factors, such as trust, price premium, individuality and innovation.
As defined by the survey report, “future brands” are those with a high chance to grow in the future. One of the defining characteristics of such a brand is that it has a consistent balance between the customers’ perception of its purpose and its delivered experience, the article indicated.And that’s exactly what constructive power of ‘perception’ that needs to be strengthened.
…But a key barrier to remedial measures still exists in pharma:
Regardless of industry’s intensive advocacy and multimedia initiatives, a strong negative ‘perception’ on pharma business persists. One of the reasons could be that the nature of most of these overt and covert measures questions the stakeholders for their negative ‘perception’ – justifying the industry practices. This approach often boomerangs. Consequent responses keep getting stronger – leading to a no-win situation. This arises out of a discord between the two concerned entities on the merits of the views that lead to adverse ‘perception’.
The PWC research paper quoted above also substantiates this point. It brings to the fore that pharmaceutical executives and stakeholders hold strikingly different views on a number of issues related to the development of ‘perception’ affecting the reputation.
The article, titled ‘Reputation and Its Risks’, published in the February 2007 issue of Harvard Business Review (HBR) also emphasizes, a clear recognition that reputation is a matter of ‘perception’ of stakeholders, will help companies to effectively manage their reputation. It also says, if companies fail to be in sync with stakeholders’ changing beliefs and expectations, building reputation through effective ‘perception’ management, would appear a tough call.
Public ‘perception’ plays a crucial role, not just in shaping government policies and regulations, but also in the long-term business success. More positive the ‘perceptions’ are, easier will it be for the company to smoothly sail through, in business – even while navigating through occasional headwinds. Thus, the ability in shaping up a positive ‘perception’ for any business, is fast emerging as an antidote even to any possibility of getting ultimately shipped out. This ability is not dependent just on presenting hard positive facts to all concerned, but a tad more.
Which is why, it is so critical to understand the root cause of the views or ‘perceptions’ of the stakeholders in the industry or an individual company. In case of pharma, when the ‘perception’ is so negative, it will be worthwhile to neutralize it first, rather than immediately trying to counter it with a fresh coat of yet one more fact-based narrative. As a ‘perception’ is not necessarily based on hard facts, such attempts may lead to a never-ending debate on which ‘perception’ is right – ‘your perception’ or ‘my perception’, rather than ‘what is right to do’?’
There lies, therefore, the criticality of effective management of ‘perception’ in pharma. The situation, I reckon, would be even more challenging in the days ahead, if the stakeholders and the pharma industry continue to hold strikingly different views on a number of crucial issues related to the development of such ‘perception’ – further denting its already dented reputation.
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.