A spoonful of branding helps Pfizer

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Headquarters: New York
Brand established: 1849
2003 advertising: $1.01 billion
Brand equity: $25.9 billion
CoreBrand ranking: No. 5
“A strong pharmaceutical brand. Pfizer has a good opportunity to replace Merck as the pharmaceutical brand most preferred by the medical community.”
Roth: “Landor’s research indicates that doctors trust the Pfizer brand.”
Gregory: “Pfizer is the clear leader of brand equity in the pharmaceutical category, but the category is going through such turmoil it needs to remember that its corporate brand needs to be monitored.”
Roth: “This is a category fraught with peril, as Merck’s experience with Vioxx demonstrates.”

It's a difficult time to be a pharmaceutical marketer. Drug ads have come under fire from as high up as presidential nominee U.S. Senator John Kerry. Some drugs themselves-such as Merck's recently pulled arthritis medication Vioxx-have come under greater scrutiny for having potentially dangerous side effects.

Pfizer Inc. may be the exception to this trend, with an apparently impervious brand whose history extends back more than 150 years. The company markets more than a dozen "blockbuster" drugs in a risk-averse, diverse portfolio of drug categories.

"Pfizer, as I see it, is the IBM of pharmaceutical companies," said branding guru Rob Frankel, author of "The Revenge of Brand X." Just as nobody ever got fired for buying IBM products and services, Pfizer has enough good will and heritage to withstand just about any negative publicity that might come its way, he said.

Brand strategist Jeetendr Sehdev said: "Many large pharmaceutical brands are obscured by their most famous branded drug. For instance, the Eli Lilly brand quickly became less relevant than its Prozac offspring. But the Pfizer brand remains strong despite the blockbuster status of its drugs like Viagra and Diflucan."

Part of Pfizer's success today can be attributed to its corporate strategy in the early 1990s, when many pharmaceutical companies scaled back marketing and R&D efforts because they feared how a Clinton administration might change the health care landscape, said pharmaceutical marketing consultant Rich Levy. "Pfizer didn't scale back but instead expanded its operations, beefed up its promotions and outreach to both doctors and consumers, and ramped up its drug development," he said.

"Though Pfizer has rarely been a first-to-market leader, it has built trust and loyalty, especially with physicians. Doctors rarely jump to adopt a new drug but, if it bears the Pfizer brand name, they'll immediately want it."

Pfizer has put a tremendous amount of money and effort into educating doctors and patients about its drugs and about broad medical issues, Levy said. Such community-building and PR are crucial to a healthy overall marketing mix.

"Pfizer's brand essence is unique," Sehdev said. "It is differentiated by standing for leadership through partnership, innovation and corporate responsibility."

And its branding is much more sophisticated than the ever-present ads that run on TV and in professional publications, Levy said. "Pfizer is present in every channel, from clinical trials that appear in medical journals to the more than 7,000 sales representatives they have on the street to a very useful Web site," he said.

One final, telling indication of Pfizer's brand strength was how it handled its $56 billion acquisition of Pharmacia in 2003, said Beverly Breitenbach, CEO of health care marketing agency Torre Lazur McCann Healthcare Worldwide, which handles branding for Pfizer's Fragmen drug. "While other pharmaceutical companies have had difficulties merging their corporate identities," she said. "Pfizer made a clear decision not to taint the Pfizer brand with any add-on names like other companies have done."

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