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Familiarity and trust: Why it matters to industry reputation and what we can we do about it

By Jill Pearcy, Director of Reputation at the ABPI 

The ABPI has been tracking opinion[i] about the pharmaceutical industry for the past three years. We do this because we know that how people think and feel about the industry affects their support for our work, and ultimately, our ability to fulfil our mission to improve patients’ health through effective medicines and vaccines.

Starting in 2020, we have regularly polled three core stakeholder groups: the general public, healthcare professionals and members of parliament.

When we ask people what they think about pharmaceutical companies in the UK, the responses tend to be very positive. In 2023, 73% of UK adults agreed that our industry produces medicines and vaccines that people need, and 66% said that companies invest a lot of money into high-quality research of new medicines.

These positive results are mirrored in other surveys, which show that globally, the pharma industry is now the most highly regarded sector, having overtaken technology companies.[ii]

The latest data show that the public values the industry’s work to collaborate with the NHS and other groups, such as academic researchers when we’re developing new medicines and vaccines. The experience of the pandemic demonstrated to many people how effective collaboration can be, and this has helped to drive improved perceptions.

So job done, right?

Well, not quite. The industry continues to have a serious issue with familiarity. During the global COVID-19 pandemic, awareness of the industry reached a peak. Since then, news about the industry has slipped back from the front pages, with other issues climbing up to the top of the public agenda.

Only a minority of people (21%) say they know a lot or a fair amount about the pharmaceutical industry. Some people even think that the main role of the industry is to develop new beauty products or run pharmacies. So the favourable perceptions of our industry are built on somewhat shaky foundations.

Does it matter?

Yes. Familiarity is the bedrock of trust, and it’s driven by two factors: capability and character. Capability is where we score highly as an industry – people recognise our strength in developing and producing innovative and effective medicines and vaccines. However, they don’t feel familiar with our character – our drivers, principles and personality.

In our focus groups, we’ve asked people to describe the industry as an animal or a fictional character. One of our participants described the industry as Batman – someone who saves lives and does a lot of good, but is mysterious and opaque.

A similar sense comes across in our research with healthcare professionals and parliamentarians. While we see these groups also expressing positive perceptions around industry capability, respondents have often expressed neutral views in terms of trust.

Lack of trust, driven by lack of familiarity, has far-reaching implications for our industry.

At the sharp end, it means that when things go wrong for one company or on one issue, there is a disproportionately high impact on the reputation of the whole industry. It also means that policymakers acting on perceptions about profitability and access may not be fully aware of the damaging impact of their policy decisions. Policy influencers may not step up to defend us from measures that may damage the whole life sciences ecosystem. Healthcare professionals and patient organisations may not wish to partner with pharmaceutical companies, if they feel they might be criticised when they attach their reputations to ours. Skilled and talented professionals may be reluctant to join the industry. There may even be serious consequences in terms of health, if people are more prone to listen to misinformation about medicines or vaccines, or decide not to participate in vital research.

So what can we do about it?

First of all, behaviours matter, and we must demonstrate through our actions rather than just our words how successful, ethical businesses are run, giving people confidence in the character of our industry as well as its capabilities.

In this context, industry transparency is often an issue that people raise. It’s an articulation of a search for information, uncertain knowledge, and a sense that they don’t have the full picture of what’s happening.

Much of the information stakeholders want to know may already be available in one form or another, but we need to consider how accessible it is compared to other information sources. Increasingly – perhaps disturbingly - many people’s most trusted source of information is social media, despite its largely unregulated blend of fact, opinion, theory and misinformation. It can be challenging for pharmaceutical companies bound by strict regulations to communicate on these platforms, let alone through traditional media. But we must continue to work to find new approaches to do so ethically and responsibly.

Across the industry, we must work together to increase knowledge and familiarity, owning successes and finding new ways to demonstrate their wider benefit. Above all, it is our job to tell a compelling story that communicates with head and heart and goes to where people are, be that social media, traditional broadcast media, online or streaming services. And we need to work hard to make sure that what we have to say is simple to understand and relevant to our audiences’ immediate concerns.

Above all, we must be bold and invest at scale in building familiarity with the nature and purpose of our industry, as we would with any other critical success factor. I leave you with a sobering fact: while two recent drama series about the opioid crisis were watched by an estimated eight million households in the UK[iii], industry has not been involved in a single public broadcast project to humanise the advances in cancer treatment, rare diseases, immunology or any of the other extraordinary achievements for which we are responsible. If we are to drive familiarity with the societal benefits we bring, that’s a dynamic we must change.

[i] ABPI (2023), Attitudes towards pharmaceutical companies in the UK. Available at https://www.uk-pharma-reputation-index.org.uk/

[ii] Ipsos (2023), Pharma knocks tech off the top spot as most trusted industry in Ipsos’ latest global report on Trust. Available at https://www.ipsos.com/en-uk/pharma-knocks-tech-off-top-spot-as-most-trusted-industry-trustworthiness-monitor

[iii] Viewing statistics from Netflix, Parrot Analytics and Ofcom

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Last modified: 23 May 2024

Last reviewed: 23 May 2024