One would expect that an annual marketing budget of more than a billion dollars would buy you a very well-positioned corporate brand. But that has not been the case for Pfizer.
This decade, the world's biggest pharmaceutical corporation launched some very successful drugs, including Lipitor and Viagra. But when it comes to its own corporate brand Pfizer is, like many multinationals, a mess of generic and insipid brand values.
All the usual suspects are there: integrity, innovation, customer focus, respect for people, community, teamwork, performance, leadership and, of course, quality. It is a roll-call of the generic from a corporation that sees branding as a superficial patina and not the fundamental core of its business.
Does it matter? With profits on average in the billions does it even need brand values at the core of its business?
We might get a different perspective from the people of Kano in Nigeria.
In the mid-nineties, with a meningitis epidemic raging in the region, a team of Pfizer researchers travelled to the city in what the company claims was a philanthropic mission. The team arrived with large quantities of Trovan, an experimental and, at that time unapproved, drug.
The Pfizer team recruited a Nigerian doctor to act as its leader, who has since claimed that he was little more than a front man. They then administered Trovan in oral form to 100 children selected from meningitis sufferers admitted to a Kano field hospital.
The Pfizer team also administered cef-triaxone, a registered drug for meningitis, in lower-than-recommended doses to another 100 children also suffering from the illness.
Pfizer said that it had received the verbal approval of the families of the patients, although in filing a lawsuit, the families have claimed that the company did not obtain their consent.
Meanwhile, those children admitted to the hospital who were not selected by the Pfizer team were treated with the correct dosages of the antibiotic chloramphenicol, an internationally accepted treatment for bacterial meningitis, by a team from Medecins Sans Frontieres.
Once the Pfizer team had ended its mission, it returned to the US, though the epidemic continued.
Of the 200 children involved in the trial, 11 died - although there is no evidence to suggest the drug played any part - and many others were afflicted with serious medical conditions, despite surviving.
After and since the affair came to light Pfizer has rejected any wrong-doing, claiming it is 'proud of the way the study was conducted'. A Nigerian commission, however, has concluded that the episode was a 'clear case of exploitation of the ignorant'.
Where are brand values when you need them? Respect for people does not seem to stretch to gravely ill African children. Community, I would suggest, does not apply to the 30 families from Kano now trying to sue Pfizer. Integrity did not apparently preclude the drugs company from using a forged ethics document as evidence that the Trovan trial was legitimate, something to which it has since admitted.
When an organisation takes branding seriously, it goes beyond the superficial and instils in its products, its people and its operations the values that define it.
There are also companies such as Pfizer that see brand values as a page on a corporate website and which, as a result, operate with an inherent imbalance between what makes them money and what makes them human.
30 SECONDS ON ... PFIZER
- Pfizer was founded in 1849 in Brooklyn, New York, by two Germans, Charles Pfizer and Charles Erhart.
- It employs 122,000 people worldwide in 60 countries and sells its products in more than 150 countries.
- In 2002, Pfizer merged with rival Pharmacia, making it the world's biggest pharmaceutical company.
- Pfizer's products include erectile dysfunction drug Viagra, children's painkiller Calpol and oral-health brand Listerine.
- Pfizer has faced various lawsuits over the years. In 2004, it announced it was negotiating a settlement deal with victims of asbestos inhalation resulting from the use of insulation products sold by Quigley, a division it acquired in 1968. Pfizer said it would pay $430m to 80% of plaintiffs, with a further $535m to be paid into a settlement trust to compensate the remaining 20% and future claimants.