Consultant and strategist Andrew Spong, PhD, former scholar and currently STweM‘s managing director, recently tweeted:

“Building trust is far from impossible for #pharma. Abstaining from digital conferences is a great start.”

The tweet linked to a 2013 anti-pharma marketing screed posted on STweM titled “For pharma, the era of multi-channel marketing, closed loop marketing, sales force effectiveness, and market access is over

I assume Spong singled out “digital conferences” because these buzzwords are frequently heard at such conferences.

It’s a year later and the industry has “abstained” from using a couple of these buzzwords, at least within topics presented at industry conferences. “Multi-Channel Marketing” and “market access” are still frequently-used terms, but “sales force effectiveness” and “closed-loop marketing” are hardly to be heard nowadays at industry conferences.

Today, you will hear buzzwords like “Engagement” and “Centricity” as in “Patient Engagement” and “Patient Centricity.”

So, it seems that pharma marketers have moved on and/or heard and obeyed Spong when he said:

“The era in which pharma could expect to be able to speak of ‘multi-channel marketing’, ‘closed loop marketing’, ‘sales force effectiveness’, or ‘market access’ without being called out as to their relevance, coherence, or appropriateness [with reference to the needs, interests, and concerns of the industry’s patient, healthcare professional, and payer audiences] is over. As a consequence, pharma needs to get over them, too.”

Now that pharma is using more customer-friendly terminology, is it any less “interested in its customers as bars on a chart, sales targets and data points than as people with individual needs?”; i.e., were these new terms introduced just for appearances in order to bolster pharma’s reputation?

Spong thinks so. He tweeted “parallel talk abt #pharma mktg/pt engagmnt as if they weren’t mutually exclusive bemuses me.”

Spong believes pharma can “build credibility by refraining from promotion; providing high quality, balanced, accessible health information; embodying a desire to be the authority on one’s own portfolio of products through a commitment to dialogue in a responsible manner — these are the trust-accretive traits that progressive pharmaceutical companies are expected to manifest.”

I agree that some U.S. pharma marketers are so focused on figuring out how to promote brands via social media & other channels that they are not seeing the plainly obvious unbranded opportunities out there. I expressed this opinion back in September, 2009, when social media guidelines were only a glimmer in FDA’s eyes.

“In the EU,” I said, “pharmaceutical companies have learned how to communicate with consumers without focusing on branded messages. Therefore, I suggested that “EU pharma can lead way for SM in HC because it is not focused on branded msgs as is US, lots of experience w DA – better app for SM.” Translated from Twitterese, what I meant was that EU pharma’s lead in disease awareness communications makes it easier for them to see the unbranded social media forest than it is for US pharma marketers who are almost catatonically focused on the branded social media tree” (see here).

However, does eschewing DTC advertising guarantee enhanced credibility as Spong suggests? I think not.

A PatientView survey of patient advocates regarding the reputation of global (mostly EU) pharma companies, which do not do global DTC advertising, puts the industry’s reputation next to last, just a bit better than the reputation of commercial health insurers, which rank last (see press release here). And that reputation hasn’t gotten any better over the years and has actually decreased since 2011.

Back to the issue of the effect of marketing buzzwords on patients’ and physicians’ perceptions of pharma… These terms are part of the marketing lexicon, which is not shared with pharma marketers’ “target” audiences. It’s only in the closed, small world of industry conferences, ad agency press releases, and marketers’ LinkedIn pages that these terms are seen and heard. Therefore, my guess is that marketing speak has little effect on pharma’s reputation among ordinary, every day patients and physicians.

Nevertheless, when pharma marketers use these buzzwords, I take out my “gun” because I, like Spong, do not trust that they are “truly putting patients at the heart of [their] business approach,” whatever that means within a capitalistic organization these days. I know what Mr. Merck said about profits follow when the company puts patients first, but these days Big Pharma puts Wall Street interests first.