Merck lets itself down with a poorly structured report, in stark contrast to its website and the compelling story crying to be told about its performance

Merck’s multi-layered corporate responsibility (CR) microsite is a commendable example of an engaging website. Kitted out with easy navigation tools, the site covers everything you need to know, from the company’s overall approach to CR to content on specific issues such as access to health, environment and employees. Each sub-section is so vast and informative, it’s easy to see that this life sciences, performance materials and pharmaceuticals company is serious about being a responsible business.

But Merck’s 198-page 2014 CR report is a different story. Compared to the sleekness and ease of access of the website, this PDF feels like a heavy brick in your browser and something of an afterthought to the website.

While websites are designed so readers can hop between each section as they choose, a PDF report is a linear document. You need to have read the previous page to understand the next and so on. Merck’s report largely fails to deliver this linear readability. Yes, it covers the big achievements and includes extensive data, but it lacks a clear narrative to help the reader understand the company’s story from the year.

It begins with a company profile that showcases the global scope of the business but makes little reference to how CR is integrated into its strategy. Without further introduction, the reader is then presented with a 13-page highlights section. This section clearly outlines some of Merck’s successes in 2014. It includes subheadings on “the challenge” and “how we’re helping” along with some handy statistics – from donations to fight the neglected tropical disease schistosomiasis, to lesser known efforts on energy-efficient liquid crystals for television screens.

After this pithy news bulletin and a letter from the chairman, Karl-Ludwig Kley, the report takes a deep dive into the nitty gritty. Merck’s efforts centre on three “spheres of activities” – improving access to health, sustainably designed products and manufacturing practices, and fostering cultural and scientific learning. But instead of organising the chapters in this way, the report is structured around Products, Suppliers, Employees, Environment and Society. This does not seem to fit the company’s strategy or the outline laid out in earlier sections.

Inevitably, this leads to repetition of the highlights pages and a new mass of information that was not introduced in the 39 pages leading up to it. This repetition and the generic grouping of the chapters makes it hard to navigate through this hefty document. For instance, counterfeit pharmaceuticals is described in detail in both the products and society chapters.

Buried beneath pages and pages of detail on compliance and materiality analysis, there is some interesting content and some of the chapters are put together well. Merck breaks down the complex issue of access to health into availability, affordability, awareness and accessibility. This clear approach has no doubt helped the company’s positioning in the Access to Medicine Index, a rigorous ranking of pharma companies, as it rose two places in the latest version. Merck is using innovative ways to reach patients in low income counties. Its first rural pharmacy in Ghana transports solar-powered shipping containers by truck to patients in remote areas to dispense medicine and counselling. Merck has also partnered with NGO Narmada Samagra to support the River Ambulance Project in India which currently reaches more than 40 previously inaccessible villages along the banks of the Narmada River. Dedicated R&D teams are also targeting local needs for non-communicable diseases, such as chronic pulmonary diseases, diabetes and cancer.

Unlike many CR reports, where treatment of employee issues can seem quite generic, Merck’s Employees chapter stands out as the clearest example of integrating CR into its business strategy.

Succession planning is one area that Merck is tackling in a refreshingly different way. Most companies address an ageing workforce by attracting young talent to replace people contemplating retirement, but Merck is nurturing its existing workforce with health management programmes and courses such as “How to stay sharp – Learning at 40+”.

Merck’s approach to communicating its CR strategy showcases the power of digital communications. Its simple website demonstrates the company’s strong commitment in a compelling way, but the 2014 report is a let-down by comparison, with weak storytelling and a structure that appears to conceal rather than show off its many accomplishments.

Ira lorandou is a writer and analyst at Context


  • Follows GRI? Yes

  • Assured? No

  • Materiality analysis? Yes

  • Goals? Yes

  • Targets? No

  • Stakeholder input? No

  • Seeks feedback? Yes

  • Key strengths? Highlights

  • Chief weakness? Poor structure

  • Pleasant surprise? Employees chapter


Merck  CR Reporting  pharma  pharmaceutical sustainability 

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