DRUG DIVIDE Little Trust in Big Pharma

Germans have little confidence in the drug industry despite PR campaigns to change its image. Big profits, scandals and the gap between consumers and companies are the reasons for the skepticism.
Drugs in Germany are available from registered pharmacies, makign it difficult for pharma firms to deal directly with consumers.

Medicines can cure terrible ailments or at least make them more tolerable. For many patients, pills, injections or chemotherapy can often be their last hope. Today there are even remedies for chronic or rare diseases.

In Germany alone, over 86,000 different drugs are available by prescriptions or over the counter, according to the German Association of Research-Based Pharmaceutical Companies, or VfA.

Still, most people don’t appreciate this output or the human and financial resources invested by drug companies. Although the sector claims to spend more on research and development than any other, in relation to its turnover, people don’t really trust the industry.

Edelman, the Frankfurt-based communications agency, has monitored the reputations of various companies and sectors for 16 years. For its most recent survey last fall, the company interviewed 33,000 people in 28 countries about their trust in certain industries and companies and summarized the results in a “Trust Barometer.”

The German auto industry, whose image has been badly damaged by the emissions rigging scandal at Volkswagen, ranks higher than drug companies.

In Germany, according to the latest study, only banks and financial service providers are less trustworthy than pharmaceutical companies.

Only 38 percent of those questioned trusted drug companies to do what is right.

While other branches of industry have improved their image in recent times, such as the energy sector or consumer goods manufacturers, the level of trust in the pharmaceutical industry has steadily declined since 2012.

Even the German auto industry, whose image has been badly damaged by the emissions-rigging scandal at Volkswagen, ranks higher than drug companies in the current trust barometer.

But it’s not just in comparison with other sectors that pharmaceuticals do badly: Even in a health-care sector that includes insurers and hospitals, the public has least trust in drug companies.

Surveys identify profit seeking and high prices for individual drugs as reasons for the distrust.

Manufacturers of pharmaceutical products do in fact achieve substantial profits. According to the market data portal Statista, margins on medicines range between 10 and 50 percent, depending on company and product.

Collective memory apparently also plays a major role in Big Pharma’s poor image: Scandals over medicines that made patients ill instead of curing them don’t just damage the reputation of the manufacturer, but have a lasting impact on the entire sector.

“It’s astounding how long people remember that kind of thing,” said an employee at Pfizer Germany.

At the beginning of the millennium, the VfA attempted to improve the industry’s poor image with a wide-ranging PR campaign.

“Research is the best medicine,” was the slogan by Berlin-based advertising agency Scholz & Friends. It was displayed on billboards throughout Germany and appeared on TV commercials for several years.

“We want to show that our innovations today and our research for tomorrow are essential for the health of people in our country, as well as for future prosperity and employment,” said Andreas Barner, then head of the VfA, when he introduced the campaign in 2004.

The campaign reportedly cost the association €10 million, or about $11.1 million. But while it won several PR awards, it does not seem to have stuck in the heads of consumers.

“Our surveys showed no significant change in the public’s perceptions," said Martin Flörkemeier, managing director at Edelman.

Mr. Flörkemeier believes the consistently bad reputation of the sector is partly due to a big gap between consumers and pharmaceutical manufacturers. In Germany, all prescription drugs and some over-the-counter medicines must first be ordered by a doctor and then purchased by the patient directly or through a hospital.

“The consumer and the manufacturer never come into contact at any point in the value chain,” said Mr. Flörkemeier. “Companies are doing far too little to break down this barrier.”

Some pharmaceutical companies wouldn’t comment on the findings. German drug companies Bayer and Merck declined to discuss their public image.

Other drug companies pointed to regulatory obstacles in German law about advertising pharmaceuticals. For instance, manufacturers of pharmaceutical products are prohibited from using scientific publications, case histories or photographs of employees or patients to promote prescription drugs.

“Even if we wanted to, we’re not allowed to talk about everything,” said Thomas Biegi, a spokesperson for Pfizer Germany.

Ultimately doctors decide which medicines to prescribe for their patients, although Mr. Biegi said a manufacturer’s image might also be crucial in that decision.

The question of trust doesn’t just apply to doctors and patients, he said, but throughout the health-care sector.

“At Pfizer, we want to help people avoid illness, recover from illness or lead a largely normal life despite illness — with new, better and established drugs,” said Mr. Biegi.

To get closer to patients, the German subsidiary of U.S.-based Pfizer has begun using social media such as Twitter. Employees of the company, who are named and shown in a photograph, use the network to make consumers aware of current events, as well as to share information on diseases and new treatments.


This article first appeared in Der Tagesspiegel, a Handelsblatt sister publication. To contact the authors: [email protected]iegel.de