The ill effects of none-exposure

The British have a positive attitude to health and the pharmaceutical industry, but there is a lack of awareness of the companies behind the brands – a major disadvantage when launching medicines

ViagraBoots’ decision to sell Viagra over the counter attracted a great deal of interest from both the media and the public last week, with hundreds of men queuing for a free trial of the pills and media reports spreading worldwide.

Yet while the ubiquitous blue diamond-shaped pills are a household name in many countries, how many consumers are aware that the drug is made by pharmaceutical giant Pfizer? Does the reputation of a pharmaceutical company really affect the success of a medical brand?

A new Europe-wide study of more than 25,000 people by Reader’s Digest into consumers’ opinions, behaviour and attitudes towards their health reveals that pharmaceutical companies could do far more to raise their profile with consumers in the UK and across Europe, with several potential benefits.

Overall, most of the public are enjoying good health, with 69% rating their health as excellent or good, compared to just 34% of people in Russia. Only 19% of the UK population are very worried about their health, compared to a massive 90% of people in Spain.

This British positive attitude to health could be linked to people’s increased awareness of the benefits of a healthy diet and lifestyle in recent years: 54% of the UK population tried to lose weight last year, more than any other European country, and 47% also increased the amount of exercise they do. Television programmes like Jamie’s School Dinners and You Are What You Eat seem to be making an impact, and UK consumers are increasingly taking responsibility for their own health and wellbeing.

UK consumers are also more confident than their European neighbours when seeking medical treatment. Most Europeans say a doctor’s recommendation was a key influence when buying a medicine or remedy – an average of 76%. This figure falls to 68% for British consumers, who rate the opinion of pharmacists almost as much (65%) – a sure sign that pharmacists and retailers such as Boots are playing an increasingly important role in the UK healthcare system today.

However, the strongest influence on British consumers when choosing medicines is previous use of the product, with 84% saying this is a key factor. This suggests that UK consumers are more loyal to medical products than any other European country. So how can marketers encourage them to try new brands?

Interestingly, the survey reveals conflicting attitudes to medical advertising. While only 15% of UK respondents say advertising is a key influence, 41% say they would only buy from a well-known brand, and 47% agree they find information in health advertisements useful. So, while consumers might be reluctant to admit that advertising affects their buying decisions, it would seem that building long-term brand awareness is key for a medical product to succeed in this country.

Awareness of the pharmaceutical companies behind the brands is an important consideration for UK consumers too. Just over a quarter say the reputation of the manufacturer is a key influence (compared to just 9% in the Netherlands), and 56% believe it’s important for a manufacturer to have its name in advertisements for its products.

The benefits of consumer trust in the manufacturer are also clear: 68% of UK respondents are more inclined to trust a new brand if it’s made by a well-known pharmaceutical company, and 42% agree that well-known brands are worth paying more for.

However, the next question in the survey reveals that these potential benefits are being missed by pharmaceutical companies. When respondents were asked to rate 12 healthcare companies by name on four different attributes, there was a remarkably low response rate. This suggests not only a lack of awareness of these companies among consumers, but crucially, a lack of opinion.

Yet when consumers were asked about their attitudes to pharmaceutical companies in general, the results were surprisingly positive. The majority (67%) of respondents across all countries believe that the investment in research by pharmaceutical companies improves quality of life and 58% believe that competition between drug companies reduces prices.

The UK results also show that the British are more positive about pharmaceutical companies compared to other Europeans. More UK respondents agree that they are essential to the healthcare system (64% compared to the European average of 51%) and only 8% think they are over-regulated, half the European average of 16%.

Worryingly, 16% of UK respondents agree that pharmaceutical companies sell drugs they know harm people, but this was far lower than the European average of 24%, and a startling 46% for French respondents.

The research shows that pharmaceutical companies could build on the positive attitudes consumers have towards them, as well banishing consumer concerns. More communication and a raised profile could really make a difference to product sales, as well as corporate reputation.

Pharmaceutical companies are seen by consumers as mysterious, faceless giants. While many might prefer it that way, they should be aware that the opportunity exists to build a strong affinity and trust with consumers, and if they don’t take this up they risk being left by brands and retailers who do take up the challenge.

Paul Eyers, health category manager at Reader’s Digest, contributed to this week’s Trends Insight

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