Words by Isabel O’Brien
Celebrity endorsements can transform a mediocre campaign into a pitch-perfect hit, but choosing the right spokesperson is crucial. We explore the practice of attaching famous faces to campaigns and how to ensure a representative strikes the right chord.
The best campaigns incite action. The worst trigger international scandals, leading to product boycotts and campaigns being pulled. Getting the tone of a campaign right is critical. When choosing a celebrity figurehead to represent a cause, the pharmaceutical industry must think like a hit record producer and pick a voice that will positively resonate with their target audience.
In Europe, industry campaigns are restricted to over-the-counter (OTC) health products and disease awareness. Health holds universal appeal, it is not a divisive genre, but marketing and communications teams still face challenges in engaging the public with their causes. Celebrity endorsements can help a product to stand out in a bustling space. The supplement market is valued at a huge $133.15 billion and a common difficulty for manufacturers is gaining attention for their products. While prescription medications have competitors, with HCPs able to choose from multiple treatment options, an OTC probiotic may be in competition with hundreds of similar offerings.
“When you operate in a crowded market with many products competing for ‘share of voice,’ we have to come up with strategies to boost brand visibility and reach,” says Arpita Pani, Senior Commercial Governance, Digital Transformation and e-Commerce Lead, Ferring Pharmaceuticals. This stands to be an increasingly prominent challenge, with the market set to grow to $245.62 billion by 2027, due to rising interests in health, changing lifestyles, and evolving dietary habits.
Celebrity endorsements in disease awareness have a strikingly similar function; data shows there to be >10,000 known diseases, each with their own stories, needs, and patient populations. Communication teams must sing out about the diseases in their portfolio, with collaborations allowing impact to be amplified in public discourse. The ignition of conversation is most needed in conquering stigma. In a recent report by ViiV Healthcare, 61% of people said that if they found out a potential partner was HIV-positive, they would or might end the relationship, with 81% identifying the reason as fear of contracting HIV themselves. In reaction, ViiV launched a campaign with rugby star Gareth Thomas, who himself is living with HIV.
“The Tackle HIV campaign is an initiative aimed at improving public understanding of HIV, dispelling the myths and breaking the stigma around it,” says Helen McDowell, Head of Government Affairs and Global Public Health, ViiV Healthcare. Collaborations can be used to drive more than just awareness; they have the potential to tackle deeply ingrained public prejudice.
Health consumers in the age of social media are savvier than ever
While the upshots are plentiful, it is important to approach these collaborations with a precision akin to a composer arranging harmonies. “Health consumers in the age of social media are savvier than ever. Diligent research is critically important to ensure that the talent can passionately and authentically communicate the key messages. Pharma should align with a celebrity in a way that conveys trustworthiness and integrity, and a clear connection to the cause will often be the anchor of the campaign,” says Amy Doner, Founder and President, Amy Doner Group, a talent procurement agency that matches celebrity talent with pharmaceutical causes.
For products where marketers are hoping to influence behaviour, authenticity is integral to reaping results. “It is important to understand if your product needs a celebrity endorsement and match that to the product personality,” says Pani. “For VSL#3, a poly-biotic, multi-strain product that I lead, I have worked with many influencers who have approached me directly due to the value of the product, and we have then assessed the impact they can have to enhance brand visibility due to their love for the product.” Onboarding existing brand ambassadors cultivates authenticity, as their audiences can recognise how closely the product aligns with the influencer’s values.
For disease awareness, where communication teams aim to change opinions, any shifts will be linked to whether the celebrity’s connection is a believable one. As a person with HIV who is passionate about eradicating stigma, Gareth Thomas is an example of a perfect choice. “The real difference is that having Gareth Thomas at the centre of it as a public figure helps bring it to life in a very passionate and involved way, and gives it more traction with the general public,” says McDowell. “The launch media campaign results include widespread prime-time news coverage, more than a dozen radio interviews, along with newspaper articles in most of the national papers and more than 160 local and regional online news outlets.” Stigma can only be dismantled if a campaign reaches a high percentage of the target population, and a celebrity spokesperson generating a buzz can bring about positive change.
With a considered choice, a celebrity endorsement can carry a campaign to chart-topping success, with reach and engagement far exceeding a campaign without a famous representative. As Doner concludes: “A strong, targeted celebrity endorsement campaign can grow into a profitable long-term partnership, strengthening your brand and enhancing visibility and understanding.”