Thirteen years ago, Astellas didn’t exist. In a world of legacy pharmaceutical companies that have been around for decades, if not more than a century, Astellas was an underdog already when it was created in 2005.
About a decade after Astellas formed, 30-year veteran of the pharmaceutical industry Jeff Winton was brought into the company to build out its communications function from the ground up. He remembers the opportunity feeling like “coming to a startup.”
In the four years since then, Winton has built a corporate affairs team of about 50 and been promoted from CCO to head of that corporate affairs division where he oversees everything from corporate communications to government affairs to digital to internal comms.
Winton also spearheaded a robust branding campaign to make Astellas as well known as its legacy competitors. The company began as the result of a merger between two Japanese pharma companies, Yamanouchi Pharmaceutical and Fujisawa Pharmaceutical, in 2005. Rather than choose one of the two established names, the company started off with a clean slate and a brand new name.
That, however, was the beginning of a communications challenge.
While the collective pharma industry struggles to revamp its bad reputation, Astellas is busy working to build up its reputation from scratch.
Once Winton joined the company, he began market research about the company. It had been around for about a decade at that point, so Winton and his team needed to see where it stood. After two years of research and planning, Astellas launched its corporate branding campaign in 2015.
“When I arrived here in 2013, one of my mandates was to work with colleagues to elevate the image of the company and the visibility,” Winton says. “The good news was we were starting with a blank slate, but with that comes nobody knew what Astellas was.”
Astellas had a slow and steady increase in revenue over the past few years with a dip in 2016. The company reported $11.9 billion globally in 2016, a 4.4% decrease over the previous year. The drop was due to slower sales in Asia and the Americas and the acquisition of its global dermatology business to LEO Pharma, which closed in first quarter 2016.
The branding campaign focuses on Astellas employees and science, following the general trend of pharma companies’ rebranding efforts like the campaigns from industry trade association PhRMA and Pfizer.
Astellas focuses efforts on television and social media and takes care to choose the right venue for commercials. The two TV spots for the campaign aired on “CNN Heroes,” a program that celebrates everyday people who change the world.
The ad showcases employees and how the work they do helps patients. The target audience is the average CNN watcher, but it is also intended for Astellas employees who, Winton says, are the company’s “brand ambassadors.” The spot also ran on screens in Astellas’ U.S. headquarters in Chicago.
The campaign is now “corporate branding 2.0,” Winton says. His team is again researching Astellas’ reputation for an updated picture on where the campaign has gotten them so far. That data isn’t in yet, but Winton says he’s already seen the improvement on social media and with employees.
“We have more Twitter followers and greater presence on social media than some companies that have been around much longer,” Winton says. “[Social media] is a huge factor in allowing us to become more visible and better known in our industry. We also have no problem attracting top talent to come to this small, younger company because people now know who we are and what our values are.”
Winton’s boss, James Robinson, president of Americas operations for Astellas US, says the ability to attract top talent to build the corporate affairs team is Winton’s greatest accomplishment.
“He attracted top talent to Astellas based on his vision for what Astellas Americas was and what it would become,” Robinson says. “Jeff is passionate, thoughtful, and an amazing leader. His team has built the brand of Astellas in the Americas and been widely recognized in the industry.”
Despite Astellas being a new player in the pharma industry, the company was not immune to the reputational beating inflicted on the pharma industry as a whole. National bad press around price hikes involving Turing Pharmaceuticals’ Martin Shkreli’s and Mylan’s EpiPen’s over the past two years left many consumers with the belief that manufacturers cared more about profits than patients. Winton, who has been in pharma for 37 years, has seen the industry become the subject of much more criticism in the last few years.
He began his career in the agency world in 1980 working on animal health clients before moving to the pharmaceutical industry. Winton has worked for Pfizer, Merck, Roche, and Eli Lilly, along with several agencies.
“When I started in this business, I would go to swanky cocktail parties and I’d say I work in pharma and people would say, ‘oh that’s great’ and start to tell me about their grandmother who passed away from cancer and then thank you for your contribution,” Winton says. “Now you go to those same cocktail parties and the first question you get asked is, ‘Why are your drugs so expensive?'”
Winton contends that negative public sentiment about pharma is partially borne out of ignorance. Pharma companies historically haven’t been very proactive telling their own story allowing more vocal groups including media, politicians, or nonprofits to set the message about the industry.
Even physicians, whose job it is to know about and prescribe these drugs, are sometimes turned off by pharma companies. The percentage of doctors who do not give pharma sales reps access grew to 36.5% in 2016, up from 22.9% in 2010, according to a survey by research firm SK&A. Even Winton’s own doctor will no longer see pharmaceutical sales representatives, he says.
“If you’re not seeing pharma sales reps any more, how are you getting info on new drugs or trends in the industry? He said, ‘I’m a voracious social media user,'” Winton says. “If there was ever any question about the need to do more digital and social media, there’s the proof.”
Without that face-to-face contact with the pharma companies, Winton says the role of social media and direct-to-consumer advertising is now also to reach doctors.
Winton advocates for pharma companies to “pull back the proverbial curtain” on their work to help remedy reputation issues. Astellas’ branding campaign shows the science and work behind their medicines. PhRMA’s Go Boldly campaign gives its audience numbers showing how many people, how many years, and how many failures go into developing one medicine.
Being open and transparent isn’t limited to big PR campaigns. Winton also works closely with a newly created group at Astellas called the patient experience team. Their focus is to make sure everything is accessible to the patient — from reading material to phone calls.
“The team is looking at everything we do that impacts the patient,” he explains “How many people does the patient have to go through when they call our switchboard with a question? What level of reading competency is required to read the average package insert or brochure your physician will give you?”
In an area like medicine, it’s not surprising that the reading material is complex.
“Most pharma companies, including us, were writing out materials at much too high a level for the average reading competency in this country,” Winton says. “We need to take a different approach and different look at the patient materials we are putting out there.”
Astellas now tries to bring in the patient input as early as possible, so problems like not understanding how to properly take a medicine are quashed from the start.
But as for reputation, the industry has “a lot of ground to recover,” Winton believes.
“We are a proud industry,” Winton says. “We love to talk about our successes, but no one likes to talk about failures. Innovation is costly. We encounter many failures along the way to finding a success.”
Pharma has always had a different relationship with government than most other industries. It is highly regulated by the FDA to ensuring the safety and efficacy of drugs and by Congress over drug pricing. Despite working closely with government agencies, Winton contends that the pharma industry needs to recapture the ear of government officials. He oversees Astellas government affairs efforts, which was added to his role when he became head of corporate affairs in March 2015.
As the debate over healthcare and the failed repeal and replace of the Affordable Care Act came to a head in Washington this summer, Astellas was on the ground, with the other pharma companies, weighing in during the most active political debate about healthcare in years.
“We’re a mid-sized company at the table with Pfizer, Merck, Johnson & Johnson and, with a relatively small team in DC, our voice is being heard just as effectively [in Congress],” Winton says.
Republicans could largely be counted on to support businesses like pharma, he says, but that’s changed as Washington was turned upside down after President Trump was elected. The current political climate and debate around healthcare is the “most active and chaotic” Winton has seen ever in his career.
Astellas’ team of 20 working in government affairs handles everything from health reform to drug pricing. Winton himself often travels to Washington to meet with representatives.
The “pull back the curtain” method Astellas and pharma uses for reputation campaigns also works in Congress, particularly around drug pricing. The federal government has an eye on drug pricing in particular price-fixing. The Justice Department opened an investigation into Mylan’s 500% increase of its EpiPen. The company is also the subject of an FTC inquiry.
“We need to try to help [Congress] understand the whole pricing area,” he explains. “Companies will set a price for a product, but never really do a good job communicating how they arrive at that price. The bulk of the products in any company pipeline will never see to market. We need to let people see what goes into clinical trial development and pricing of products.”
His other tried-and-true approach for meetings with members of Congress is to make it personal.
“Everyone on the face of the Earth has either been personally impacted by disease or had someone they love impacted by disease,” he explains. “Once you make it personal, it starts to resonate.”
Having grown up on a farm, he’s personally passionate about mental health in rural areas. To share his personal experience with representatives, he tells the story of a family member who committed suicide.
“I was working at Lilly, a company that makes antidepressants and yet I couldn’t even help my own nephew,” Winton says. “I tell that story often when I go into Washington. It’s a matter of just being real and being human and having a conversation with people. Then I’m seen not as a spokesperson, but as an uncle who lost his nephew.”
Although Winton works in the realm of human health at Astellas, his personal passion is for animals. Despite living in Chicago, he owns a dairy farm in upstate New York with 200 cattle.
“I’m a huge animal fanatic,” he says. “I started off in veterinary medicine and took a lot of animal science classes. I was always interested in writing and speaking as well, so I took a lot of communications classes too. In my first job, the agency had animal health clients so they said, ‘Let’s import this farm boy from upstate New York and we’ll teach you about PR and advertising if you teach us about animals.'”
Winton also competes in dog shows with his six greyhounds and whippets and won at the Westminster dog show in 2008. He is also a competitive equestrian. Winton has seven horses that he trains to compete.
“I never had two legged kids,” he says. “But I have lots of four legged kids.”
This story first appeared in PRWeek.