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Pharma Brazil: Becoming ‘Social’ In Latin America

As a country, Brazil is the second biggest user of the social media channel, Twitter. In this article, Luke Sewell discusses the untapped opportunity for pharma in using social media to connect with patients in the emerging markets, such as Latin America.

The pharmaceutical industry is hoping that emerging markets, such as Latin America, can sustain industry growth for the next ten, twenty years and beyond. But are the same strategies used in western markets as effective in Latin America?

In order to adapt, the pharma market has been forced to address the following issues:

1) The switch to more specialised medicines

2) The growth of patient power

3) Fewer blockbusters, smaller budgets

4) Making sense of the digital world

All four of these reasons are important for Latin America, but I would like to focus on the fourth point: making sense of the digital world.


“The well known social media channel Twitter has around 33.3 million users in Brazil…”


Pharma and social media are taking their time to come together effectively, mostly due to regulatory constraints. But is this delay impacting market penetration in developing countries such as Brazil, where social media use is stronger than in western countries?

“Patients are engaging in online conversations about medications whether pharma participates or not.”

Drug Safety Alliance, November 2010

The “online social boom” of Brazil

The well known social media channel Twitter has around 33.3 million users in Brazil, making the country the second biggest user of Twitter in the world (ahead of Japan and the UK), and user numbers are growing by around 40 % a year. Also, YouTube reaches a reported 79 % of the country’s internet users.

Different sources have reported different rates of social media penetration in Brazil, ranging from 79% to 87% and higher. Between 70 and 80 % of the population will have internet access by 2016, and work is being done to ensure it isn’t just the richest in Brazilian society who benefit from new technology but the whole population.


Figure 1: An expectation of the increase in social media users in Latin America over the next few years, compared with the last few years

More than two out of three internet users in Latin America in 2012 will also be social network users and, like in other developing regions, social networking is a key internet activity driving online usage.


Figure 2: The number of social network users in Brazil over the next two years is expected to rise by nearly 23%

Many Brazilians feel social media are good sources about brand experiences

An October 2011 study of consumers in Brazil, China, India and the United States focused on attitudes towards social media. Nearly one-third of Brazilians (31%) agreed with the statement: “Social network sites are a good source of word-of-mouth information on brand experiences.” This was significantly higher than responses from people in the other countries studied.

As of the end of 2012, Brazil is now the largest market for both Facebook and YouTube after the US, and is one of Twitter’s top-5 active user groups, which influenced the microblogging company to launch operations in São Paulo because “the size of the market made it important to have our own presence,” said vice-president Shailesh Rao. Between September 2011 and September 2012, the average time spent by Brazilians on Facebook grew by 208 %, and just as in the US and Europe, individuals have been propelled to international stardom via YouTube and other sites.

Pharma and Brazil

Pharmaceuticals are Latin America’s largest market; Brazil grew by 10 % in 2011 and is worth US $26bn, according to IMS Health figures. The middle class is expanding rapidly, with millions joining every year. Since the introduction of the new Patent Law in 1997, many foreign pharmaceutical companies have entered the Brazilian market. However, due to the lack of government support in the country, these companies (MNCs) have mostly partnered with local players for the expansion of their services.

The government’s aspiration for an improved National Health Service has been to create a high quality service for all and although in need of reform, the system is trying to increase access to and quality of to medicines, having added diabetes drugs and heart disease to the government lists.


“As of the end of 2012, Brazil is now the largest market for both Facebook and YouTube after the US…”


In other regions of Latin America, such as Mexico, Venezuela and Peru, public healthcare coverage is broadening, which will benefit the pharmaceutical industry.

According to IMS Health, the Latin American market will double in size from 2011 to 2015. Brazil is the most attractive market, but steady growth in other countries makes Latin America a healthy proposition for investors, particularly when compared with other mature but stalling markets.

Social pharma

Pharma companies traditionally struggle to place a very clear value on communication spending in the social sphere. The idea that pharma can engage its customers in meaningful conversation or dialogue on the web is often thought to be very optimistic.

Unfortunately, web-based conversations are all too often superficial, engaging or lacking personality. Social media may not necessarily be the place where pharma will be able to communicate effectively the nuances of pharmaceutical R&D and its value to patients and society.

There are other downsides to diving straight into social media. A poorly maintained, out-of-date site or social stage is probably worse than no site at all, and this means resources must be found to manage these interactions – even if they are only ‘conversational’ and of a relatively low level importance.

Despite these costs, one of the most appealing aspects of Facebook and Twitter is that pharma, like other groups, no longer has to rely on the, more expensive, mass media, to convey their messages to their audience.

As in any environment, real relationships and dialogue takes time and commitment to build up.

Getting the right language

Portuguese is the leading language on Twitter after English. In a recent study, Brazilian accounts were less present amongst pharma followers than this Twitter average; only 5% of followers were from Brazil instead of 9% on Twitter overall. Also, the accounts present in the sample had a very low number of followers themselves (287 vs. 1,046 overall). In total, pharma’s reach in Brazil was thus very low compared to what could be achieved on Twitter.


“…pharma, like other groups, no longer has to rely on the, more expensive, mass media, to convey their messages to their audience.”


The under-representation of Brazilian accounts amongst pharma followers is thus probably due to language. Many companies are struggling to decide whether and where to create local language accounts. This obviously depends on internal drivers and resources as much as on the opportunity. As a starting point though, we see that Brazil features a large population and acceptable Twitter adoption rates. Twitter use in this high growth market will continue to expand quickly. Brazil is also a strategic emerging market for most pharma companies. It is therefore surprising that most do not have a Brazilian Twitter presence or emit at least some tweets in Portuguese.


Figure 3: Top 12 countries listed by the number of unique followers on social media

If analyzed further, it becomes clear that English speaking countries like US, UK and Canada make up for 88% of the entire pharma twittersphere potential reach.

Though the Internet is not quite a mass medium yet, Brazilians are very open to interacting with brands via social media.

Internet use is growing rapidly and those who are online are very active in social media and open to interacting with brands and businesses. As a result, when considering testing the value of social media for your business in emerging markets, Brazil presents a notable opportunity.


“The under-representation of Brazilian accounts amongst pharma followers is thus probably due to language.”


Start by listening to any conversations relevant to your audience and identify their needs (both met and unmet). Think about how you can enhance existing conversations and engage in a meaningful way that adds value. If you decide to invest in social media in Brazil, make efforts to understand the following:

1. The local market, including the changing social landscape

2. How you are going to integrate social into your wider marketing strategy

3. Your target audiences’ online needs and behaviours and where you can add value

4. Your social media objectives and KPIs; evaluation is not easy but you need to assign value to audience actions

5. How to get internal buy-in, the skills and processes necessary to succeed

In conclusion, if pharma wants to successfully take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves in the Latin American market place and in-particular Brazil it will need to embrace social media and furthermore, the steep language and cultural barriers intrinsic with social media use.


About the author:

Luke Sewell has been working in the clinical sector in Latin America for a number of years.

He now works for managing clinical trial localization and translation to Latin America and Europe.

Latin Link provides translation solutions for companies looking to access or expand into Latin America; this includes clinical trial translation into Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese and English.

How can pharma engage better with patients in Latin America?