A Pipeline Isn’t a Story: Five Lessons for Biopharma Branding

Instead of emulating big pharma’s branding conventions, companies should boldly communicate unique ap-proaches and inspiring visions

Matt Magee
Matt Magee
Senior Vice President of Strategy
PJA Advertising

It happens every time we engage with the representatives of a new biopharma client to help them build their brand. We scan the competitive horizon and behold—a sea of sameness. Interesting companies doing amazing things, founded by visionary leaders, and filled with brilliant, passionate people.

But their brand says the same things as their competitors’ brands about being patient centered, science driven, innovative. And they even seem to be doing their best to look the same, presenting the usual patient lifestyle shots, photos of scientists in the lab, and molecular illustrations.

It’s frustrating to see because the value of having a distinctive and compelling brand has never been higher for biopharma. The industry is under a new spotlight because of its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Competition is getting hotter. According to PitchBook, the second quarter of 2020 was the largest quarter ever for venture capital funding into U.S.-based biopharma companies. You have to fight hard for the partners, assets, and talent that are essential to your growth and success.

A brand that gives you an advantage for attracting essential audiences and resources should be a no-brainer, and yet so few biopharma companies seem to have one.

Our deep experience working with biopharma companies has taught us a lot about how to define and express a brand story that sets you apart—and boosts your ability to compete for attention and resources. Read on for five powerful lessons that we’ve learned.

Medication bottles
Competition in the biopharma industry is intensifying. According to PitchBook, the second quarter of 2020 was the largest quarter ever for venture capital funding into U.S.-based biopharma companies. [Andrew Brookes/Getty Images]
  1. Being patient centered is a necessity, but it’s not a differentiator

This lesson might be a tough one to hear. Caring for patients, striving to improve their lives, putting them at the center of your decision making—these ideas are cornerstones for your company, people, and culture. But it’s hard to make a commitment to patients the focus of a distinctive message when everyone says it.

What’s more, saying it over and over doesn’t necessarily make it resonate beyond your all-company meetings and patient posters. In fact, a 2019 PatientView survey found that only 35% of patient groups say the industry is excellent or good at putting patients first. To build your best brand story, you probably need to look past patient centricity to more specific and distinctive ideas about what you do and why you do it.

  1. Your marketing needs to be as bold as your technology is innovative and daring

When you’re dealing with things as weighty as serious illness, scientific rigor, and safety—it’s a reasonable instinct to be conservative with your brand expression. But being serious about disease doesn’t mean you have to be staid about marketing. With the advent of COVID-19, the healthcare industry is enjoying new levels of trust.

You have license to be bold and even provocative when it reflects real urgency, passion, and new thinking. The challenges facing healthcare worldwide are calling out for innovators who dare to try new approaches and pioneer new science. If that’s who you are, your marketing needs to signal it to the world with a brand story and expression that dares to be bold as well.

  1. Biopharma isn’t big pharma and shouldn’t try to look like it is

Big pharma has made some serious reputation gains during the pandemic: Edelman’s Trust Barometer shows the public’s trust in pharma companies rose to a record high of 73% in May 2020. But pharma companies still carry a legacy perception as behemoths where greed, siloes, and egos can get in the way of making an impact—especially among ambitious industry talent.

Biopharma companies are perceived differently: nimbler, more inventive, and fresher alternatives. And yet many biopharma companies reach for big pharma’s tired visual and verbal tropes. We once found the same retired couple walking along the beach in stock photography used on the homepages of three different biopharma companies.

Emulating these familiar brand expression moves may seem like a safe choice, but the truth is the opposite. The bigger risk is getting perceived as a run-of-the-mill pharma company instead of the fast-moving, ground-breaking biopharma you are.

  1. Your approach isn’t just good science, it’s a good story

We’ve often found that what’s distinctive about a biopharma is something about its approach. It could be about leveraging a proprietary scientific platform. It could be about a powerful molecule with a lot of potential applications. It could be something more operational: a way of collaborating with partners or designing clinical trials more effectively.

These powerful ideas are usually underemphasized or presented as dry, technical information. Instead, your unique approach should be brought to life as the center of an inspiring story—revealing new thinking, breakthrough work, and exciting potential.

Dramatizing your unique approach could be the key to moving beyond the common “what” of therapeutic focus and the “why” of patient outcomes to a distinctive “what it’s all for, where it’s all leading” that convinces investors, partners, and talent that you are truly worth prioritizing.

  1. Branding is an overlooked source of biopharma advantage

With all the hard, urgent work it takes to build a biopharma company, branding can find itself on the back burner. But creating a truly distinctive brand story is really an investment in supporting core business priorities.

In a crowded industry, a distinctive brand story gives the market a shorthand way to remember you, the sophistication of your business, and the uniqueness of your approach. It establishes a foundation of equity with critical stakeholders beyond your pipeline, your latest data, your submissions and approvals—making sure there’s a reason to believe that’s bigger than the next milestone or molecule. It’s an essential advantage in the fight for talent, inspiring prospective hires to notice you and elevating your company as an opportunity they long to be part of. And the fact that so many of your competitors have underdeveloped brands means investing in your own can deliver outsized returns.

Why do so many biopharma brands fail to take advantage of these best practices? It’s not that they don’t have the potential to make their brands stand out. But it’s essential to do the hard work of mining for what is truly distinctive about you, and why that matters to the outside world. That means identifying the components of a great brand story, like what you’re fighting for on behalf of your constituents, your unique point of view on an industry problem worth solving, and the distinctive way you go about addressing it.

Few companies are doing work as valuable and interesting as biopharma companies today, and the pandemic has only made that clearer. The world needs to know about your value, your brilliance, and your passion. You deserve to have a brand story that’s as inspiring and as unique as you are.


Matt Magee ([email protected])  is senior vice president of strategy at Cambridge, MA–based PJA Advertising.