How are the European pharma and biotech sectors addressing strategic communications?

Stakeholder expectations are high and, with all eyes on healthcare at the moment, it is essential for companies to go beyond generic commitments, says Rosanna Campbell-Gray

Consumers are driving and accelerating change when it comes to healthcare, demanding better, faster and more accessible services. The COVID-19 pandemic has further altered the dynamics for this sector and leading players are showing the importance of collaboration, partnership and new forms of innovation in protecting public health globally.

With all eyes on healthcare at the moment, Lundquist conducted a deep dive analysis on Europe’s leading pharmaceutical and biotech companies in order to assess and map how companies are using strategic narratives to engage authentically, meet expectations and generate trust amongst their stakeholders. The best companies show rather than tell, giving stakeholders clear insights into how they are navigating this new scenario.

The benchmarking survey is based on 17 firms from seven countries and explores five main themes that are of utmost importance when it comes to communicating in 2021: strategic sector partnerships, digitisation and innovation, access to medicine, leadership, and efforts shown during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The research measures the credibility and efficacy of corporate communications, providing a guide for companies to effectively narrate their messages. The in-depth analysis focuses on two fundamental macro-areas that are key to a well-balanced and trustworthy communication on strategy and corporate vision: Substance and Distinctiveness.

In this article, we will investigate three of the main themes addressed in the research: partnerships, digitisation and access to medicine.

Adding pharma and biotech value through strategic partnerships

Strategic sector partnerships are revealed to be one of the most significant ways in which companies can add value to their businesses, from digitisation in diagnostics to innovation and accessibility. It is therefore crucial that companies’ communications strategies align with their collaborations.

Indeed, all companies analysed in the study addressed the importance of partnerships in some form, mainly as a tool for accelerating innovation and responding to patient demand, but what separates the best from the rest is those companies that have connected their partnerships to a strategic view of their commitments to innovation and sustainability, as well as for the overall pursuit of their purpose. Currently, only 59% of the key players were able to communicate this successfully.

How are healthcare providers using partnerships to communicate strategy and generate trust among stakeholders?

When it comes to messaging, AstraZeneca proves to be among the leaders, boldly stating that their “purpose is to push the boundaries of science to deliver life-changing medicines”, a task which they acknowledge would be impossible to undertake alone and without collaboration. Another leader emerging from our research is Swiss pharma company Novartis which, beyond placing partnerships at the core of their corporate identity, has leveraged its position as a partner in helping to combat COVID-19 through their support of vaccine production facilities around the world.

Roche, which outperforms most other companies throughout the analysis by scoring highly both in terms of distinctiveness and substance, offers an extensive partnerships section with a series of articles called Perspectives in which specific areas such as neuroscience, cancer immunotherapy and gene therapy are addressed.

Companies should be using partnerships as a tool to integrate industry topics more broadly across communication platforms and as a strategic element of companies’ innovation and identity. Not doing so is a missed opportunity in providing credibility and concreteness to the messages being communicated.

When it comes to communicating about partnerships for the benefit of corporate social responsibility, other companies to watch are Bayer, Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline. BioNTech and Novo Nordisk are the ones to watch when looking at partnerships for breakthrough in innovation.

Digitisation and artificial intelligence

Using both visual and textual narratives is crucial to engaging with stakeholders, especially when it comes to complex areas such as artificial intelligence (AI) and digitisation where users may be more apprehensive.

Pharmaceutical and biotech companies have historically lagged when it comes to technological solutions, however, the past few years have witnessed a shift, driven by demand and accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Across the industry, digitisation means innovation and it is becoming increasingly difficult to separate the two.

Telemedicine, smart diagnostic systems, blockchain electronic health records and AI-enabled medical devices are just a few digital innovations that are reshaping the industry, reducing human error, increasing efficiency and making healthcare more accessible and sustainable. Big data can help forecast care, avoid medication prescription errors and help shift to preventative rather than responsive care.

Staying engaged and aligning strategic communications with sustainability

As companies rise to meet stakeholder expectations it remains surprising to see that only half of the companies analysed strategically and extensively discuss digitisation, using persistent and engaging narratives throughout their communication ecosystem. With digitisation playing such a crucial role in the healthcare sector, relegating the topic to subsections of a company’s digital platform under partnerships or innovation means divesting trust and credibility amongst stakeholders.

Qiagen is one of the companies that includes digitisation as a mainstay of the company, including it in the first level of the About Us menu pages and clearly connecting digitisation with business mission “to make improvements in life possible”. By using decisive and consistent statements, Qiagen successfully demonstrates their commitment to finding digital solutions in healthcare.

AI is another area that is generating a significant amount of coverage and will be pivotal in helping healthcare companies find 21st Century solutions, from increasing efficiency and accuracy in diagnosis to discovering new drugs and treatment protocols. Yet just a handful of companies distinguish themselves through engaging messaging and dynamic presentations about AI within the overarching theme of digitisation.

Novartis demonstrates leadership and communicate the intricacies of AI through an hour-long video interview between their CDO Bertrand Bodson and Microsoft’s corporate VP of research and incubation, Peter Lee who discuss why healthcare’s digital moment is now.

AI can be a daunting subject so providing examples and case studies is key to generating trust among users. Roche does well to engage users through a detailed blog-style post in which readers are explained how AI can help diagnose diabetic macular oedema, a complication of diabetes that causes a thickening of the retina that can lead to blindness. The article explains concepts of deep learning and diagnostics in order to facilitate understanding and conjure confidence in their digital innovations.

Philips also communicates their innovative digital solutions via blog-style articles, explaining with detail the ways in which digitisation can help improve patient care and emergency diagnostics such as MRI scans in a straightforward and digestible style.

AstraZeneca is another company to watch when it comes to digitisation and innovation.

Stakeholder expectations are high and with all eyes on the healthcare industry at the moment it is essential for big players to go beyond generic commitments and distinguish themselves by clearly communicating measures taken and concrete achievements. Ample space should be given to digital innovation and woven into all communication platforms in a holistic manner.

Access to medicine

According to the WHO, less than half of the global population is covered by essential health services and 100 million people are pushed into extreme poverty because of health expenses, forcing them to live on $1.90 or less a day. Furthermore, it is estimated that in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic put around 71 million people back into extreme poverty, reversing decades of progress and setting the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) firmly out of reach.

When it comes to accessing effective, affordable, and safe healthcare (SDG 3.8 and 3.b) a collaborative global approach is required between multiple stakeholders including policymakers, governmental bodies, healthcare providers and pharmaceutical companies. The latter are crucial in ramping up progress and achieving sustainable and long-term access to medicine, especially for low-income countries where government expenditures on healthcare are in decline.

Lundquist’s benchmark shows that five out of the 17 companies included in the research do not discuss access to medicine in any form which, considering the pressing nature of the subject and the size of the companies, is surprising. In fact, just a handful of companies truly communicate their efforts through their digital corporate platforms.

An essential part of closing the gap in healthcare will come from implementing pricing strategies that allow for increased access. GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) dedicates a full section to pricing, acknowledging its importance and detailing their strategy when it comes to working with less developed countries. The company explains their approach to patents, which they do not file in certain regions to allow local pharmaceutical companies to create generic versions of GSK medicines. Other thematic focuses include access to vaccines, the fight against HIV and eliminating lymphatic filariasis.

Roche also focuses on pricing strategies based on country-specific circumstances such as GDP and purchasing power parity as well as personalised reimbursement models, aligning access to medicine with their overall business mission.

Access to medicine is also another area in which partnerships should be communicated and highlighted. Development, production and infrastructure can create a significant burden on any single company so divvying responsibility through strategic partnerships within the sector and across the supply chain can allow better and more efficient advancement.

Germany’s Merck puts partnerships centre stage when it comes to issues of access with a focus on creating sustainable supply chains. In fact, when it comes to distinctiveness in communicating stories and viewpoint, Merck set themselves apart. The company has created a dedicated sustainable supply chain charter which gives added weight and value to their commitments and as a result generates a feeling of trust and accountability.

Tackling lower-income countries’ access to medicine also involves addressing the infectious diseases and health risks that most affect those areas. This can mean investing in vaccines that work towards the eradication of infectious diseases, and even education programs that provide locals with the know-how to safeguard themselves against potential health problems.

An excellent example of communicating this to stakeholders can be seen in Bayer’s recent partnership with the German Red Cross. The pair have joined forces to co-create a Family Planning Module so that they can “deliver family planning in humanitarian response to emergencies and protracted crises”.

One to watch when it comes to communicating lasting solutions for eradication of infectious diseases and education programmes is Sanofi.

Clearly pharmaceutical companies do not bear all of the responsibility, but no tangible increase in accessibility can be achieved without them. Those who communicate best align their mission, vision and values with commitments to sustainable access to healthcare. Stakeholders should have access to up-to-date, relevant and accessible information that provides concrete examples, case studies, goals and achievements. This is key to generating trust, especially in the context of COVID-19 which has signalled a greater need for big players to step up.

The road ahead

Healthcare providers and pharmaceutical companies are under the spotlight and they have mostly responded by integrating key sector topics such as partnerships with the public and private sector throughout their corporate communications.

Companies that perform best in the research demonstrate that they are adapting to customer expectations, setting concrete goals and communicating their progress along the way. The dynamics of the sector have changed and the best companies provide stakeholders with clear insights into how they are adjusting to this new scenario, most notably when it comes to engaging in strategic partnerships with other companies, governments, NGOs and even tech giants. Generating trust will be dependent on the substance and clarity stakeholder-centred communications.

As can be seen from the matrix, Roche and Bayer lead the way in terms of distinctive and substantive communications. AstraZeneca, CHR Hansen, Sanofi, GSK and Philips perform well when looking at “Substance”, explaining topics with great attention to detail however, they sometimes lack a touch of distinctiveness. Merck and Novartis are revealed to be leaders in distinctive communications but are a little weaker when compared with other leaders in terms of substance. Other companies tend to be located around the centre of the matrix, indicating that more can be done in terms strategic and interconnected digital communications ecosystem.

Lundquist’s analysis revealed that the sector has generally made great leaps forward in the way they present themselves and their commitments to these subjects, particularly when it comes to the challenging issues of accessibility to medicine or care and digitisation. However, few companies have actually demonstrated a strategic incorporation of these messages within their overall communications ecosystem. That is, many have missed the mark when it comes to stakeholder-centred communications strategy. The study also reveals several leaders when it comes to delivering messages with substance and distinctiveness, most notably Roche and Bayer although AstraZeneca performs well on substance.

The next challenge for the sector will be to adapt communications to stakeholders. The only way ahead is to provide forward-looking future-led communications that breakdown stakeholder insecurity by providing them with the answers and guidance they need with regards to what to expect from the fast-evolving sector.

About the research

cover trust healtcare sectorLundquist’s .trust research measures the credibility and efficacy of corporate communications and how it is able to generate trust. It provides a guide to help companies effectively narrate their corporate messages in a way that goes beyond transparency. The analysis is based on two fundamental macro-areas that are key to a well-balanced and trustworthy communication on strategy and corporate vision: Substance and Distinctiveness. The two pillars are broken down into 10 sections that make up the .trust protocol. Each of these sections contain detailed evaluation criteria that are individually weighted to reach a total of 100 points.

About the author

Rosanna Campbell Gray

Rosanna Campbell-Gray is a consultant at Lundquist, a leading corporate communications and sustainability consultancy based in Milan and specialising in national and international listed companies. She has a background in luxury PR and a master’s degree in Sustainability and Energy Management from Bocconi University, Milan.

About Lundquist

Lundquist is a corporate communications consultancy based in Milan. For further information about the company and its European Healthcare .trust analysis, please visit or contact

Don’t miss your complimentary subscription to Deep Dive and our newsletter

Sign up



Your name

Your e-mail

Name receiver

E-mail address receiver

Your message