Dear Pharma Brands: No One 'Likes' You

Mashable recently published an article highlighting eight successful brands on Facebook. Guess what? None of them were pharma brands. None were even related to healthcare. Why?

All of these "successful" brands have a few things in common: their Facebook pages are interesting, dynamic, fun, and responsive. Most importantly, each and every page gives people a reason to "like" the brand, from declaring allegiance to a long-beloved brand (Oreo) to supporting a cause (Pampered Chef/Help Whip Cancer) to gaining exclusive access to a coupon, event or contest (Loft).

Notably, clicking "like" results in a public declaration of support for a given brand. It's conspicuous consumption for the Millennial generation. The problem for pharma brands (i.e., brands representing a medication, not necessarily unbranded or cause-marketing campaigns) is two-fold. First, because of regulatory restrictions, pharma brands generally don't provide much value on their pages or a reason to "like" them. But the second, bigger issue is that people simply don't want to declare public support for a medication.

Pharma brands shouldn't expect to be "liked" in this way because this action is at odds with how most people think about their medications: I rely on the meds I take, I trust them, I feel thankful for them, and maybe I even have an intimate connection with them. But I don't "like" them. "Like" is simply the wrong declaration of emotion for a pharma brand. Are you comfortable publicly broadcasting your use of Viagra to all your friends, family, and coworkers? Even if you are, trust me, they don't want hear about it.

The benefits of "liking" a brand in Facebook must outweigh any negative perception as a result of this "like" (e.g. friends making fun of you for supporting your favorite toilet paper brand and polluting their news feeds). For brands that are inherently adored or stand for something tangible (e.g. Whole Foods), the barrier for "liking" is much lower than for those associated with a neutral or negative function (e.g. Preparation-H).

People need a really big reason to "like" a brand they perceive as a necessity in their daily lives. And medications fall into this category, usually with added barriers of embarrassment and privacy concerns. It doesn't necessarily mean they don't have an emotional connection with you. They may even like you. It just means they won't "like" you.

Despite this reality, many pharma brands have attempted to build Facebook pages. Recently, Facebook announced that it will require open commenting on all pages -- except for branded Rx drug pages (see below) -- as of Aug. 15, driving many pharma marketers into a panic. Attempts are even being made to shut off the wall completely or create a "custom wall," which circumvents the intention of Facebook.

Ultimately, if you aren't going to use Facebook in a way that aligns with the expected visitor experience -- enabling open comments (even if moderated), supporting the community, and intending to be responsive - perhaps your brand shouldn't be on Facebook at all (unless you can come up with a completely novel, unexpected way of using Facebook that's actually valuable to a user, even in the absence of expected functionality).

That's why Facebook pages aren't a good fit for most pharma brands today. The same sources that have reported on the impending open comment mandate have also noted that Facebook will make a few exceptions for this heavily regulated industry. Pages that specifically promote a pharmaceutical product (i.e., have an ISI on the page and the product name in the title) will not be required to enable commenting.

Since no conversation will be permitted, this means that such product pages will continue to be nothing more than a one-way promotional channel; a scaled-down mini-site constrained by the Facebook environment. And how does that benefit your brand? While the Facebook page may not add any value, buying media placements on Facebook can be a viable alternative with the ability to send people to the real brand website instead of the watered-down version.

If Facebook simply required everyone to enable conversation -- the basic, fundamental functionality upon which Facebook was originally built -- pharma brands would no longer be able to claim that they're "social" without really being social.

Being a social brand doesn't just mean being on Facebook. Or Twitter. Or YouTube. To truly be social, brands (including pharma brands) need to build social currency. Social currency is the extent to which people share a brand or information about a brand as part of their everyday social lives.

Brands build social currency by giving customers access to novel resources that give them status within their own communities. This means creating valuable content (that is, content that is truly useful for your customers, not just what we assume they want) and making it easy for them to share it.

So, in thinking about social strategy for your brands, look beyond Facebook, healthcare marketers. I promise we'll like you more if you're not asking us to "like" you.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of her employer, Digitas Health, or Publicis Groupe.

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3 comments about "Dear Pharma Brands: No One 'Likes' You ".
  1. Jeff Bach from Quietwater Media , June 10, 2011 at 11:56 a.m.

    To me, when thinking of medical/pharma marketing:

    #1 - People do not consume any of these products when they are healthy. ALL of these products and service become relevant ONLY when something is wrong. This is a hard place to come from and market to. These products could be called "necessary evils". Who goes looking for products like that?

    #2 - We call this HEALTH care when it really should be SICKNESS RECOVERY care. It is a tough dance when the message shows only healthy people, yet the only people that take it are 300 pound smokers with high blood pressure, many of whom are diabetic.

    The WHOLE message is twisted, at least to my eye.

    ED drugs are the perfect example. All their ads show healthy thin guys. While I have no data at all, I would reasonably conjecture that most men consuming ED drugs do not fit "healthy, thin, non-smokers, light drinkers". Most are probably in the "overweight smokers with high blood pressure and a history of heart disease" category. But this does not play well on prime time TV and so we see male models hired to play the part and not anyone authentic.

    #2 - In the software days of old, at least one big monster of a software company was known for its FUD style of marketing. Fear. Uncertainty. Doubt. FUD. Their mostly implicit message was "..use us not somebody else because if you don't use us something bad will happen to you..".

    To me, pharma and the medical world reek of this style of marketing.

    We live in interesting times.

  2. John Mack from VirSci Corporation , June 11, 2011 at 8:33 a.m.

    The REAL reason pharma brands like Facebook pages is because of Facebook's POPULARITY and the number of "eyeballs" it can deliver, not the the number of conversations or likes it can generate. See “Drug Companies Are Flocking to Facebook for Eyeballs, Not Conversation” (http://goo.gl/9Hg0D).

  3. Richard Meyer from Online Strategic Solutions , July 15, 2011 at 10:56 a.m.

    The reason that nobody likes pharma is because pharma does not provide magnetic content or a reason for consumers to raise their hands and say "I want to enter this conversation". Regardless of what is believed content is king and excellent compelling content will always draw audiences to it