The image of the pharmaceutical industry is primarily determined by the media for a large part of the population. The media often supply their readers, viewers and listeners with stereotyped, exaggerated accounts. Headlines like “pharmaceutical industry: ‘comes right after drug dealers in reputation’” (Focus online) evidently coincide with the consumers’ expectations.
Doctors, pharmacists and the used products are normally the only means of contact with the pharmaceutical industry. However, this is usually preceded by a personal illness (or the illness of a close person), which has a lasting impact on the process of dealing with the pharmaceutical industry. It is thus only logical that the relation to this sector is different than it would be if the industry were just perceived through the media.
Therefore, the overall perception to develop is contradictory. The pharmaceutical industry strikes consumers as an economic sector dominated by corporate interests where whole companies or parts of companies are apparently shifted to and fro at will, profit maximization appearing to be the only driver for their actions.
This image even filters down to the level of costs for medications and the doctor’s services – which are perceived to be unjustifiably high. In particular, as soon as lower-priced generics come onto the market, the consumer sees his profiteering suspicions confirmed. The intensive research performed prior to market launch, fondly cited by the pharmaceutical industry as a reason for the high prices, is evidently an argument which does not or only seldom reaches the end customer.
As an individual the consumer feels exposed to an oversized and overly powerful pharmaceutical industry. Someone who wants to maintain or restore their health often feels at the mercy of an anonymous machine. But the feeling of having entered into a relationship of dependence creates the urge to rebel at a psychological level. Attention is directed at possible mistakes and at parts of the business that confirm the consumers’ impression of being controlled and “ripped off” by an all-powerful system.
A close look is taken at the places where the authoritarian giant begins to waver and to show signs of alleged fallibility, whereas positive events and performances may be systematically ignored.
Three main directions of development stand out for pharmaceutical companies:
- Pharmaceutical companies that want to work on their image are wise to make the consumer feel the company is actually looking after them (carer principle), is doing something good for them and their health. This is the only way to break down the fatal feeling of being trapped in a disadvantageous relationship of dependence.
- Positive storytelling, similar to what small and medium businesses like to practice in their public relations when emphasizing tradition and/or showing authentic employees, could also be a first step in the right direction for the pharmaceutical industry.
- Furthermore, announcing the progress being made and developments “for the benefit of people” is an important signal. Reports on new drugs which prolong our lives and restore us or protect us create a feeling of being “looked after” by the pharmaceutical industry.