Eli Lilly’s $35 cap of one of its insulin drugs was about 100 years in the making.

By today’s standards, it’s a huge step toward affordability of the life-saving drug. By historical standards, it’s long overdue. (The original patent for insulin was sold for a few bucks in the 1920s with the public’s interests in mind.)

It comes at a time when Big Pharma feels pressure from policy makers and consumers to lower costs, from President Joe Biden’s Medicare proposal for seniors, policy in state legislatures and online backlash.

The timing of the Eli Lilly story is squarely centered around a younger generation’s influence on social media, where a company’s brand can soar or crash with a single tweet. Eli Lilly knows this trial firsthand when a parody account posted on Twitter late last year, “We are excited to announce insulin is free now.” It brought a renewed focus to outrageously unaffordable drug prices in the U.S. and the desperate need for a lifesaving medicine that was intended to be given to the public.

The ultimate tipping point for Eli Lilly came March 1 with its $35 cap announcement. Breaking news headlines shouted it loudly from their online rooftops and suddenly Eli Lilly went from apologizing to leading the way, turning up the heat on the other major insulin manufacturers.

From a public relations and healthcare communications perspective, there are great lessons here:

Lean Into Equity

There’s power in having a mission that speaks to the public’s heart. With younger generations putting an emphasis on equity, now is the best time to lean into your own narrative, specifically where fairness and impartiality are considered. Consider adding this component to your company’s mission. Without it your brand will be left behind or even outrage the public. Appeal to the humanity of your customers. Keep it simple. Not only will people gravitate toward this, they will praise you for it. (Much like Biden did for Eli Lilly last week.)

Build Up Your Narrative

You don’t file for a business license and automatically land a front-page story in the Washington Post. At least, most of us don’t. It starts with laying the groundwork in smaller and often trade publications or on social media. Eli Lilly, founded in 1876, has had nearly 150 years to do this work. For smaller companies just starting out, it’s important to participate in the breadth of the media landscape, with each piece adding to the whole narrative. Reporters and customers alike will look for blog posts, press releases, thought leadership and other media to build a sense of trust that not only is your company a valid player in the market but a real one, too. When it comes time to make a big announcement, people will be paying attention.

Time it Right

Malcolm Gladwell famously described it as a “tipping point” — when an idea spreads like a virus and becomes contagious. The idea that insulin is overpriced has long been talked about. But recent insistence from Biden, an outpouring on social media and in-person testimony added up. It was time for Eli Lilly to make a statement. It did and it took over the internet.

Tell the Positive Story

When Eli Lilly came under fire online for charging a huge markup of its insulin after the parody tweet, it found a new story: maybe insulin could be cheaper, its CEO said. The story is now about how this giant pharmaceutical company is paving a new path and putting pressure on its peers to join them — or risk being late (or forced) to the party. Being proactive with a positive narrative can help head off a problem or even lead to a still more positive outcome.

Eli Lilly’s story is an important lesson for healthcare communicators. It’s one that can have a great effect on the public’s perception (and their quality of life). The above ingredients will help build a successful campaign in the media and win over public opinion.

Remember: Brand awareness wasn’t all built in a day, jingles don’t get stuck in our heads after one playing and certainly people don’t remember a one-off headline. Building this awareness relies on an ever-present, persistence that complements our narratives.


RH Strategic is a Seattle and D.C.-based PR agency with a nationwide presence and additional global reach via membership in the Worldcom Public Relations Group. We provide strategic public relations for innovators in the technology, government and healthcare markets.