The Long Game

What’s Pharma doing with Influencer Marketing? Based on the number of inquiries we receive, Pharma is fast-tracking toward the pre-clinical research phase. Marketing executives are seeing more articles about influencer marketing pop up on their phones and thinking, “Yes! We need to generate awareness among younger consumers – and social influencers are literally our only channel.” Will they take the time to research and experiment? Well, yes; Pharma is uniquely suited to play the long game. It’s in their culture.

And yet, the decision cycle for experimenting with influencers has more facets than what you’d find in Melania Trump’s gold plated jewelry room/house. But can an influencer actually endorse and promote a prescription drug brand legally? Would it be worth the trouble if they could? Or does there exist a track to legally gain awareness without the stifling regulations and commensurate low engagement? We talked to the very responsive and nice FDA’s Office of Prescription Drug Promotion and learned some details.

Why Now?

Pharma is certainly on a roll; Merck’s stock price, for example, is soaring to its all-time high and others are nearing their highs from the mid-90s. Consumers of all ages are turning to social media for news and entertainment. And people are living longer. The outlook for Pharma is tracking with healthcare – positive.

Pharma may be conservative, but they’re inventors and rely on the rigor of process. Look–even my mom knows that kids today don’t trust what comes out of the brand’s agency. Pharma CMOs certainly realize this, too. So to keep the momentum Pharma realizes the need to start marketing to younger consumers via influencers even if the payoff is a decade or two from now.

RELATED: Brands vs Influencers: The Fight for Creative Control

An intelligently-composed image and caption by an trusted influencer can be enormously effective for most industries. Speaking of trust, according to the FDA the influencer will be required to take the medication they’re endorsing. It’s an all-in exhibition of authenticity that will surely lift eyebrows with their audience.

But this, and other FDA requirements for product promotion can quickly dull the shine of the influencer channel – at least in this manner of promotion.


Influencers are just getting used to the idea of conforming with FTC regulations. Now we have to worry about the FDA, too? For just one of scores of rules, the caption or image must clearly show the “proprietary name” in close proximity to the “established name”. So a caption would have to read something like this:

“Lastacaft (alcaftadine ophthalmic solution) works wonders relieving my itchy eyes during allergy season! #ad”

Not horrible, but we’re not done. The promoter is required to provide side effects and risks. Here’s what a mocked up post could look like on Instagram:

And remember the influencer will be required to take the medication throughout the life of the endorsement. Depending on the drug, this may make repurposing the content even a few weeks after the campaign impossible.

The most critical question we need to answer is this: will the audience respond? Even though the influencer is putting the product in their body, the post will have to be so junked up that “counter-influence” could rear its brand-killing head. Counter-influence is more than passive shrug to a discerning young consumer; hamfisted product placement is viewed as the brand clumsily and contemptuously trying to “slip one by” the millennial. The price? A lifetime of that consumer megaphoning how godawful your brand is at every opportunity. Your brand becomes the mechanic who screwed them over.

Good influencers aren’t dumb; they’ll know all the ad-heavy text will numb the engagement, which will affect their overall averages and reduce their marketability. To sum, we have reluctant influencers, extensive and costly legal review, and the considerable possibility of an audience backlash. Yes, Pharma definitely calls for a more subtle and skillful hand with influencers. More pointillism than realism – Seurat instead of da Vinci.


Although Influencer Marketing is moving inexorably from impressions to engagement to conversions, awareness remains paramount to the marketer, especially those defending their brand. With an artful approach, Pharma can double their marketing yield by gaining awareness for the conditions which drive the sale of their drugs all while improving their reputations.

Every month has several “awareness” campaigns for a health condition. Sometimes it’s the whole month, or it may be one week or one day. Pharma can do fruitful work with these awareness campaigns. Here are three campaign ideas for March, for example:

  1. Brain Injury Awareness Month: Popping one low dose aspirin per day minimizes the severity of stroke. Bayer could sponsor a series of posts from lifestyle influencers on the necessity of wearing a helmet when riding a bike or motorcycle. The association isn’t obvious, which is the point, but the consumer will feel that Bayer cares about their brain health when it comes to buying a commoditized product such as low dose aspirin.
  2. National Nutrition Month: Novo Nordisk, the leading provider of insulin, could commission Tasty-like videos from foodies on cooking delicious, low sugar meals that are well-balanced. This campaign may also infer a smackdown of the homeopathy industry, which is the bane of legitimate drug companies and a tangible danger to patients foregoing treatment scientifically proven effective.
  3. March 30 is National Doctor’s Day: Merck, the Pharma behind Mevacor, a cholesterol treatment medicine, could sponsor a number of posts encouraging you to set up an annual physical and thank your physician while you’re being jabbed repeatedly. You may not need the drug now, but statins are increasingly prescribed to younger patients with moderate cholesterol levels.

Conclusion: Awareness Is No Compromise

Although influencers are essential for many industries looking to lock in younger consumers for life, a direct brand endorsement is almost certainly a terrible tactic for Pharma. Regulations are probably not going to be reversed; it will be difficult to recruit influencers who must actually ingest the drug, and audiences will most likely rebel.

However, health awareness campaigns offer an adroit sidestep. And they may be optimal for an industry with the patience to take 12 long years to bring a drug from inception to your medicine cabinet.



MATTR is the only full-service influencer marketing provider with detailed audience insights from PersonaMesh™. We go beyond demographics into psychographics such as values and interests so that your influencer campaigns align with your campaign targets.