Pharma with a purpose

by Anthony Bruce Pharmaceutical and Life Sciences Leader

Email +44 (0)7801 916767​

by Wallace Rosenberg UK Purpose Client Lead

Email +44 (0)7973 499554

There has never been a better time for the pharma industry to shift the way it thinks and the way it acts to redefine its relationships with stakeholders. The past year has amplified the calls for a greater focus on purpose - where the actions businesses take are for the benefit of all stakeholders – employees, customers, regulators, and society – in addition to shareholders. There has been a growing body of evidence in support of this trend, but amid COVID-19, we’ve seen how society responds to those it feels have really embraced purpose.

And for pharma and other health industries – a sector thrown into the spotlight during the COVID-19 pandemic, with the development and roll-out of vaccines making headlines every day - there is a real opportunity to declare their purpose and story.

Making the most of this chance to reset previous misconceptions about the industry and put forward a positive, confident story will take more than just good news stories. Successfully being recognised as ‘purpose-led’ means a clear vision and plan to show how that purpose is being brought to life. We have set out some ideas for how pharma can begin to redefine itself.

How ‘purpose’ can deliver real change

More companies are self-defining as ‘purpose-led’, as they buy into the evidence that purpose equates to better performance. Having purpose means making decisions that speak to an organisation’s values, and its unique ‘value-add’, to maintain trust and credibility.

Identifying your purpose – the ‘why’ your organisation exists and the value it adds to society - is only the start: a bigger challenge lies in making purpose a day-to-day aspect of business life.

As we explain in our work with companies to help them develop and embed their purpose, we see five key benefits for purpose-led companies – in addition to the wider societal gains:

  • Improved decision making
  • More motivated employees
  • Improved customer engagement and brand
  • Better relations with investors
  • Managed regulatory risk

Your purpose must involve actions, not just words. Announcing a purpose but not changing what you do creates a purpose gap. This leads to resentment among customers and employees and ultimately does more harm than good.

Now is the time for pharma

As vaccine programmes roll out, society sees pharma delivering health and wellbeing, not just profit.

But it isn’t quite that simple. While the reputation of healthcare professionals has grown significantly during the pandemic, opinions about pharma haven’t shifted so much. PwC research shows 56% of consumers have a more positive impression of the sector linked to the development of vaccines and treatments to combat COVID-19. But a survey by Ipsos Mori for Takeda, admittedly before the vaccine roll-out, showed only 38% had a favourable opinion of pharma companies and 48% trust pharma to act in the best interests of society.

However, the Takeda survey also suggested that knowledge breeds favourability. In other words a further opportunity for the sector – establish and explain your purpose, and this will improve your reputation.

So, what must pharma do? How can the sector capitalise on this unique situation?

Be honest, open, and think beyond profit

1. Be loud and be proud

This is the moment when the industry can really stand up and talk about its achievements. For years, pharma execs would almost feel the need to apologise at social occasions – in part due to the influence of US conceptions of ‘big pharma’, and assumptions on how applicable this is to the UK. Now they are recognised as the people who can help save us from the pandemic.

Pharma is in the headlines for the good it is doing. Vaccination numbers are featured on television news every day, like football results or the stock market. That has cut-through, and provides an ideal platform to explain the value pharma is bringing to society.

2. Be honest

People generally don't object to pharma companies making profit, but they do object to profiteering. This is a chance to explain some truths, such as how very few drugs in development ever get to market (around 1%) and how the cost and profit must be spread across unsuccessful and successful drugs.

And there are examples of pharma putting society above profit. AstraZeneca has pledged not to profit from its COVID-19 vaccine during the pandemic.

3. Collaborate

The sector has overcome old-fashioned silo working to join with government, public health and academia to get COVID-19 vaccines to market at unprecedented speed. It’s a staggering achievement.

It wasn’t because standards dropped. It was because of a collaborative system with a single 'purpose' in mind, focused on the outcomes needed by each stakeholder. It’s the same kind of collaboration that has led to AstraZeneca/ Oxford giving away its vaccine methodology to other countries for development.

The lessons learned can help deliver collaborative, systemic change. Pharma companies that do this will make better, sustainable long-term profits while delivering their purpose.

4. Inspire and motivate

There is huge cross-sector competition for talent at the moment, but pharma is in a unique position to inspire a new generation of workforce into the sector. This is a chance to use purpose to drive a company’s culture - to inspire and motivate people and then embed change. Employees are already demanding more meaningful workplaces.

At the same time, there’s a critical moment for pharma companies to look to their existing workforce. Fail to look after staff this year and you will pay the price – just imagine the headlines about your company succeeding in the pandemic while ‘pushing workers to the brink’. Purpose can motivate staff through the tough times, but organisations need to be genuine about how they are recognising and rewarding the workforce. But it’s important to always look after your staff – they will live and breathe your purpose internally and externally if you get the right culture and recognition.

5. Show your authenticity

The key to being purpose-driven is to show authenticity in the changing narrative by clearly demonstrating what you're going to do differently. How does the way you do business, the operating model, the care for customers and end-users look different because of your purpose-driven approach? That's the litmus test - not what you say, but what you do and how you do it.

This is a unique moment for pharma – a time to explain and show purpose for the benefit of society. Our simple advice: be honest and open, and make sustainable profit by thinking beyond the short term. We believe that those who have the courage to tell a louder, honest story to the public and their employees will reap the benefits in the long term. If you’d like to discuss any of this further, please get in touch.

by Anthony Bruce Pharmaceutical and Life Sciences Leader

Email +44 (0)7801 916767​

by Wallace Rosenberg UK Purpose Client Lead

Email +44 (0)7973 499554

Read more articles on