The reputation of the pharma industry continues to lag behind other consumer-facing businesses, based on Harris Interactive’s latest survey into corporate reputations.

The 9th annual Reputation Quotient survey is out. Technology is king; other industries, like airlines, consumer products, insurance/financial services, pharmaceutical and retail – have plummeted over the past two years, according to Harris Interactive.

Harris points out in its press release that it’s more than profits that consumers rate highly for corporate reputation. It’s a combination of social responsibility, vision, and how employees are treated. This combo can generate trust between a company and its consumers.

The Top Ten companies in Harris’s research are:

Johnson & Johnson
Intel Corporation
General Mills
Kraft Foods
Berkshire-Hathaway, Inc.
3M Company
The Coca-Cola Company
Honda Motor Co.
Microsoft Corporation

Thus, technology (Google, Intel, Microsoft) and beloved consumer brands (like J&J, General Mills, Kraft, 3M and Coke) are held in high esteem.

Note on methodology: the first phase of this research began in July/August 2007 when consumers identified 60 “most visible” companies. In-depth interviews on these firms was conducted between February and March 2008 among consumers.

Health Populi’s Hot Points: Harris has been ranking pharma for many years in this and previous iterations of corporate reputation studies. Here’s my chart from a client presentation showing the pharma reputation data since 1997.

Pharma’s rep improved quite a bit in 2005-2006…the time when Medicare Part D kicked in. That’s an event that resonated positively with consumers — especially seniors and their kids. That’s something that built trust, at least for a time.

Since then, consumers have faced several major drug safety issues, the market explosion of cheap generics (e.g., the generic $4 prescription filled Wal-Mart), the entrance of high-cost specialty drugs with higher coinsurance payments fro a growing number of consumers, and a host of other pharma scenarios that erode consumer trust in the industry.

And this just in: according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis, pharmaceutical trade groups and manufacturers spent a record $168 million on lobbying in 2007. This figure represents a 32 percent jump over 2006 and brings the decade total to more than $1 billion, according to the Senate Office of Public Records. The main issues lobbied were fighting drug importation, extending patents, and preventing Congress from limiting DTC advertising.

What can the industry do to regain trust? Begin with transparency and education. Most people do not understand the drug discovery process. They sure like the price of a generic pill, but in the great scheme of things do not understand the birth of that technology. Furthermore, instead of traditional DTC — which is going by the wayside in the midst of FDA scrutiny and cost pressures — pharma companies should allocate promotional budgets to communicating the specific benefits of therapies, and how to best utilize them.
The high degree of health illiteracy in the U.S. could be reduced if pharma and medical device companies worked to educate people to nudge them toward healthy behaviors — and that includes (but is not limited to) when, how and why to take drugs as prescribed.