And the winner of the Covid vaccine brand battle is…

After almost two centuries of successful innovation, one company is about to get a huge fillip from the rollout of its vaccine.

VaccineThey were immigrants. And cousins. And both called Charles. Big handsome, hairy men from the southern plains of Germany. In 1848 they sailed for the new world and landed in New York. One of the cousins had borrowed money from his father. The other used his training as a confectioner to propel them into the exciting new world of chemicals. Their newly adopted nation of America lagged well behind Germany in the field of medicine and both men saw a very 19th century thing on the horizon: a hole in the market.

In 1848 the two stood on the corner of Harrison Avenue and Bartlett Street in Brooklyn and watched the last red bricks being laid for their imposing new factory. With a final flourish the company name was carefully painted above both the entrance and exit of the building. Fortunately for the cousins they shared a surname so the new company could be named after both of them. It was called Pfizer.

The hole in the market turned out to be gigantic. Pfizer’s first big hit was Santonin. It was a common chemical in Germany derived from plants and taken in lozenge form to combat parasitical worms. Newly arrived Americans were teeming with the things but unaware of the purgative properties of Santonin. Until Pfizer started producing it, that is. The company was on its way.

Santonin advertisement circa 1870

First steps to domination  

Time passed and, as they sometimes do, the combination of expertise, entrepreneurial ambition, bare luck and the gradual emergence of core competence and brand equity created something rather special. We forget the thousands of brands that fall by the wayside over decades of capitalist progression and remember only those that are lucky, smart and bold enough to survive, evolve and then dominate.

Pfizer was one such example. The company excelled at sourcing and then mass-manufacturing the major chemical remedies science discovered, and society then demanded.

A story of growth

During the 1940s Pfizer established itself further. While the presence and antibacterial properties of the penicillium mould had been understood for more than two decades, its isolation and mass production was seemingly beyond even the most brilliant scientists. By 1942, despite widespread appreciation for what penicillin could do, US stocks of the stuff were so small treating 10 patients at once would have exhausted the entire national supply.

But then Pfizer stepped in. Decades of commercial capability in mass-producing advanced chemical compounds opened the door to the company’s biggest commercial and scientific achievement thus far.

Using a deep-tank fermentation method, Pfizer mass-manufactured enormous quantities of penicillin. Pfizer made it widely available to Allied troops during the final stages of World War II and then to the general population. By the war’s end, America had access to more than 600 billion units of penicillin a year.

Early vial of Pfizer produced Penicillin – 1946

The achievement propelled Pfizer into a new phase of drug development. But it was a happy accident in the UK that marked the next great chapter in the company’s evolution.

Chemists working at the company’s research facility in Kent were working on a new compound called Sildenafil that was being developed as a potential treatment for high blood pressure and angina. The first clinical tests were run on patients at the Morrison Hospital in Swansea.

The initial Phase I results were disappointing. The drug had little if any effect on angina. But some of the patients were reporting an intriguing side effect.

Many were suddenly able to achieve and maintain an erection – in many cases for the first time in years. In one of the most astonishing instances of corporate luck in the history of product development, Pfizer had stumbled on a wonder drug for what they would later call ‘erectile disfunction’.

Viagra from Pfizer – 1998

Patented in 1996 and renamed Viagra, it became a blockbuster almost overnight. Over the next two decades, until patent protection was eventually lost and the market softened, Viagra generated tens of billions for Pfizer around the world.

And then Covid came. Cast your mind back 12 months and we were gradually getting our heads around the potential implications of a global pandemic.

Very soon the world’s attention turned to science and whether anyone could and would produce a vaccine. There were dozens of projects launched to create Covid-19 vaccines. But would any of them actually work? It’s a cliché to say the world held its breath, but that’s really what happened.

Then Pfizer, working alongside partner company BioNTech, did it again. It was the first major company to break cover with incredibly good news.

In early November it announced the results from a Phase 3 clinical trial of some 43,000 participants. The results suggested a vaccine efficacy rate of more than 90%. “Today is a great day for science and humanity,” said Pfizer’s chairman and CEO Albert Bourla.

For the first time in my adult life I listened to the World Service news with a mug of coffee and a tear rolling down my cheek.

British eyes had been on Oxford University and its commercial partner AstraZeneca. Professor Sarah Gilbert, the scientist behind the vaccine project, had become the calm, measured and very English voice of the fight against Covid.

But initial optimism was tarnished when early results suggested the efficacy of the AstraZeneca produced vaccine stood at only 62%. That figure did rise to 70% when data from South Africa was added and, in a strange turn of events, reached 90% in a small group who were mis-dosed with a smaller initial dose. I do not know enough about vaccines or epidemiology to comment further but I know a little bit about product launches and when those results came in, you could feel both disappointment and concern. They were scrambling a bit and it showed.

In one of the most astonishing instances of corporate luck in the history of product development, Pfizer had stumbled on a wonder drug for what they would later call ‘erectile disfunction’.

It’s early days and scientists have been quick to point out that efficacy for Covid vaccines effectively means zero symptoms. All those outside the initial 62% efficacy group in the AstraZeneca trials who did experience symptoms, experienced only minor ones and no-one died or required hospitalisation. Success in other words.

The Oxford/Astra Zeneca vaccine may yet have its day when it comes to the length of immunity it offers, degree to which it decreases transmission to others and ability to handle current and future mutations.

But, and this is the key point for marketers, AstraZeneca and Oxford University have lost the branding battle. I know, I know. Talking about brands when it comes to Covid vaccines seems inappropriately superficial and commercial. But it is not. Splitting out objective product features from subjective brand perceptions is always a pointless, pyrrhic pursuit. Separating a vaccine’s proven scientific performance among experts from its perceived brand image among those asked to administer and take it is similarly flawed.

Product is brand and brand is product

Unfortunately, a growing number of stories from across Europe are now providing empirical evidence of this ancient branding truth. In Italy, a group of angry doctors are appealing to the country’s health ministry because they do not want the AstraZeneca vaccine they deem to be less effective.

In Germany, only 13% of the AstraZeneca doses have been used so far. German patients and healthcare professionals are sceptical of the vaccine’s efficacy. In Berlin, where citizens have been promised a choice of vaccines, most are waiting for Pfizer stock and refusing the AstraZeneca option.

Despite the enormous demand for a vaccine in Germany, AstraZeneca’s product is becoming a regalwärmer – a shelf filler no-one wants.

In Austria, hundreds of medical staff signed a letter of protest this week after finding out they would get the AstraZeneca vaccine and not the more positively perceived Pfizer alternative.

In both France and Sweden, recipients of the AstraZeneca vaccine have reported side effects in such numbers hospitals in both countries have requested a pause in the vaccination and a switch to either the Pfizer or Moderna alternatives once they become available.

The brand winner and loser

It is a concerning state of affairs. But make no mistake: it also creates an enormous long-term strategic advantage for Pfizer. Other companies like J&J and Moderna are also prospering from successful vaccine production but it looks like Pfizer will emerge triumphant from the first chapter of Covid as the world leader in its treatment.

The development and mass-manufacture of a Covid vaccine will likely become Pfizer’s finest hour, its biggest commercial opportunity and an enormous global boost to the company’s corporate brand equity.

Consider the factors.

First, until you read the last 10 paragraphs you were probably unaware of Pfizer’s crucial role in the development of penicillin. When the wonder drug is mentioned we think of Alexander Fleming not the American company that made it possible to prescribe it.

It’s a similar story for Viagra. You would have to have lived under a rock not to know about the drug and its wondrous impact on the lives of millions. But its brand architecture – a brand endorsement structure – enabled the product brand of Viagra to suck up all the oxygen of consumer attention at the expense of the parent brand of Pfizer.

You probably did not even know Viagra was a Pfizer invention until this column. And when its patent died, so too did any long-term brand benefit for Pfizer.

But with the Covid vaccine brand architecture now works in Pfizer’s favour. Maybe the company learned its lesson from Viagra? Perhaps there was no time to do the usual naming work. Maybe it just got lucky again. Whatever the reason, the vaccine’s name is simply the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid‑19 Vaccine. The Pfizer vaccine for short. Pfizer gets all the glory – now and forever.

And forever is the right word. Because it looks likely that we will never be completely rid of the accursed virus. For the rest of our lives we could well be taking a Pfizer booster shot.

The commercial and branding implications of the company’s new-found prominence in the world of Covid treatment could be an enormous opportunity to make money, build brand and, wait for it, save the world.

The commercial and branding implications of the company’s new-found prominence in the world of Covid treatment could be an enormous opportunity to make money, build brand and, wait for it, save the world.

For every victory to occur there must be a loser. In this case, a little unfairly, it is AstraZeneca. It has produced a fine vaccine and one that will help the world to recover. But the people who need to take that vaccine are simple creatures. All they/we know is that AstraZeneca scored 70, but Pfizer scored 95 on a test that they do not understand but know was really important. Pfizer good. AstraZeneca bad. When the stakes are this high that is enough to create preference and commitment for Pfizer and, as we are now seeing, rejection of AstraZeneca.

When my Dad set off for his first Covid shot a few weeks ago I saw the saga play out first hand. The night before I had urged him, if he was offered a choice, to go for the Pfizer vaccine. In a very Cumbrian way he shut down the discussion by telling me there was only the AstraZeneca option and that would “have to do”. But the next night a one-word text lit up my phone – Pfizer.

I whooped. Actually whooped. Until recently the question of Pfizer’s finest hour prompted an ongoing debate over the relative merits of penicillin versus Viagra. One an essential drug the company helped produce rather than discover. The other a more indulgent product but one that would not have existed without the company’s good fortune. As we head into 2021 and slowly lift our eyes to a post-Covid future, it looks likely the company’s Covid-19 vaccine will at the very least become the third great moment in Pfizer’s history. And perhaps with time, perspective and usage, its greatest achievement of all.