COVID-19 Vaccine Brand Preference Rehabilitates Big Pharma’s Image (For Now)

COVID-19 Vaccine Brand Preference Rehabilitates Big Pharma’s Image (For Now)

9 out of 10 Vaccinated Americans Prefer Pfizer and Moderna Over J&J

Thanks to the COVID-19 vaccine rollout and ensuing vaccine brand preference, Big Pharma has gotten a chance at rebranding in the last year. Unlike ever before in our memory, many US consumers now show a brand loyalty to the company that manufactured their vaccine: Moderna, Pfizer or Johnson & Johnson.   

And the popularity contest for vaccine brand preference isn’t even close, as seen in this CDC chart from November 2021.

COVID-19 Vaccine Brand Preference Rehabilitates Big Pharma’s Image (For Now)

Only 8% of fully-vaccinated Americans received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Pfizer is the largest group with 55%, and Moderna represents 36% of fully-vaccinated Americans.

Some of this data can be explained by the kinds of doses vaccine sites had available at the time of vaccination and Pfizer’s FDA approval in August 2021. Also, J&J received emergency use authorization from the FDA 70 days after the other two, in February 2021.

But there’s plenty of evidence to show brand preference is at play more than supply chain chance.

Pfizer and Moderna’s Competitive Advantage in the Vaccine Brand Preference Arena

As pretty much everyone knows by now, Moderna and Pfizer were developed with mRNA technology, while Johnson & Johnson used traditional methods. The FDA describes:

“The Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine contains messenger RNA (mRNA) which is genetic material. The vaccine contains a synthetic piece of mRNA that instructs cells in the body to make the distinctive “spike” protein of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. When vaccinated, the body produces copies of the spike protein, which alone does not cause disease, and the immune system learns to react defensively, producing an immune response against SARS-CoV-2.”

(For a more detailed comparison of the three COVID-19 vaccines available in the US, check out this article from Yale Medicine.)

Many consumers found this mRNA technology to be a key selling point in their decision to get vaccinated with Pfizer or Moderna. People engaged in never-before-seen amounts of personal research into vaccine brands and types. As a snapshot of this interest, compare the five-year Google Trends data on search terms, “Pfizer,” “Moderna,” and “Vaccine.” Before 2020, there was a persistent lack of interest in these topics.

As the vaccines began to rollout to US consumers in 2021, suddenly people were proud to be #PfizerGang or #TeamModerna. And these hashtags are still hashing it out, as seen in this recent NBC 5 Chicago video, “New Data Gives #TeamModerna a Slight Edge – But Pfizer Shot Can Save Your Life Too:”

Who Has a Vaccine Brand Preference for Johnson & Johnson?

Although early adopters and the ensuing majority of consumers preferred the vaccines developed with mRNA technology, that doesn’t mean Johnson & Johnson doesn’t also have a following. Despite a scare in April 2021 involving an elevated risk of blood clots with this vaccine and a lower level of effectiveness, some prefer the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, for a mix of reasons:

  • J&J developed its vaccine using well-known technology
  • It requires only one shot
  • Perception that there might be fewer side effects

Healthline reports that this vaccine is popular in rural areas and for people without flexibility in their work or life schedules.

“J&J is simply viewed as the most appealing, less time-consuming option for certain populations, particularly people with transportation barriers or work and family obligations,” Rose added. “In fact, the week of the pause [in April 2021], we tried to reschedule appointments with people who originally signed up to receive J&J, but instead offered the Moderna and Pfizer shots. Many people refused the alternatives, telling us they would rather wait until we resume with J&J.”

Anecdotally, I’ve also noticed that a J&J vaccine brand preference is seen among the vaccine-hesitant who are required to receive vaccination for employment or travel.

Remember When Big Pharma Was… Problematic?

Lest we forget, the pharmaceutical industry hasn’t always been popular. According to Merriam-Webster, the first-known use of “big pharma” as a perjorative term was in 1994. One of the most recent controversies involves various states suing pharmaceutical companies for their involvement in the opioid crisis—as recently as 2019, Oklahoma was granted a judgement of $572 milllion. Other states bringing suits against various pharmaceutical companies include Ohio, New York and West Virginia.

Many complaints about the pharmaceutical industry surround high prices and/or profits—either actual or perceived. A typical example is this New York Times book review headline, “How Big Pharma Grew Addicted to Big Profits.The case could be made that a brand new drug needs to be priced to recoup the cost of development, although it’s harder to understand why insulin prices would triple over a decade, with demand fairly constant and predictable.

Conversely, when pharmaceuticals are subsidized and seemingly free, like the COVID vaccines, it’s much easier for consumers to be happy about the brands behind them. In the US, the federal government purchases all doses of COVID vaccines and supplies them to providers enrolled in the CDC COVID-19 Vaccination Program.

Vaccine Brand Preference Faces New Tests Ahead

As COVID persists front-and-center in the national consciousness, it remains to be seen how much brand loyalty consumers will feel in the face of needed booster shots and resistance to emerging COVID variants like omicron.

Over 40 million Americans have received a booster shot. While these booster shot early adopters seem enthusiastic in their choice, they represent just 20% of the fully-vaccinated. Here are a couple Instagram posts from a “Moderna Mama” and Pfizer recipient.

COVID-19 Vaccine Brand Preference Rehabilitates Big Pharma’s Image (For Now)
COVID-19 Vaccine Brand Preference Rehabilitates Big Pharma’s Image (For Now)

Is COVID Vaccine Brand Preference a Trend or Unicorn?

This unanswered question is interesting to contemplate. Just because #TeamModerna and #PfizerGang took Twitter by storm during a pandemic, will consumers start caring about the brand names of other immunizations? 

One can find the nine different varieties of flu vaccines available for use this flu season on the FDA’s website, and we even learn that there are two production methods: egg-based and cell- or recombinant-based. Brand names include:

  • Afluria
  • Fluad
  • Fluarix
  • Flublok

These product names aren’t the most impressive or compelling, but we at Insight to Action do have plenty of opinions on effective brand names and new product development.

It seems unlikely that US consumers will start researching and formulating opinions on every vaccine in their lives. The CDC lists 15 separate vaccines as part of a child’s overall vaccine schedule (including the familiar DTaP and MMR vaccines). But, in 2019, the COVID-19 pandemic also seemed unlikely. Perhaps there’s an opportunity for pharmaceutical companies to build consumer loyalty and affinity with vaccine brand preferences.

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