By Vince Parry
Brand development officer, Truth Serum NTWK, an MJH Life Sciences™ brand, and author of Identity Crisis: Health Care Branding’s Hidden Problems and Proven Strategies to Solve Them

Branding is the art and discipline of taking values that customers esteem and transferring them to a product, service or company so customers see a flattering reflection of themselves in the brand. A brand of car that owns the idea of safety will attract safe drivers, which in turn will reinforce the vehicle brand’s identity, and so on.

This dynamic is at work, as well, in healthcare branding to healthcare providers (HCPs). See what happened here? I lumped all doctors into the HCP classification. They might enter medical school with the intention of becoming an HCP, but they define themselves by the specialties they choose. Doctors are rare birds, each with their own distinctive plumage and call, and oncologists are perhaps among the rarest. If we stop asking them what they think of oncology brands and start asking them what they think about themselves when they associate with the brands, then we can answer their call more alluringly.

Pursue the usual line of inquiry, and you will get the usual answers:
“Why did you become a doctor?”
“To help people.”
“Why did you become an oncologist?”
“A mentor inspired me to go into the field.”

Throughout my career, I’ve had the benefit of conducting brand research with an untold number of oncologists. The brands have multiplied and altered the landscape significantly, but the people who go into the field have essentially the same personality as their forebears. And if oncology brands wish to thrive, they must be mindful of creating an identity that best mirrors that of the specialist. When I talk about identity, I am not referring to the promotional and educational aspects alone but rather to the entire brand experience.

Oncologists have a unique combination of four central traits: intellectual/analytical, resilient, fluent, and empathetic. The first three are inwardly focused qualities, and the last is an outwardly focused quality that only others can judge. Let’s delve into these traits and see how they set up the opportunity to create mirrorlike product brand identities.

Not surprisingly, oncologists are analytical. They are intellectually curious about the myriad ways that cancer can take hold, as well as about the therapeutic pathways invented to thwart it. They are also scholarly, as they are keen to participate in speaker programs and clinical trials. Unlike surgeons and anesthesiologists, they are primarily thinkers rather than doers. Oncologists are challenged by the vagaries of disease etiology and, as a result, are highly engaged in learning how to outsmart the enemy they face each day.
Oncologists are remarkably fluent in the languages needed to articulate treatment options and prognoses, debunk myths, communicate difficult news to patients and their families, and even help counsel patients on how to accept death in a way that’s not completely tragic. To do this, they must be genuinely empathetic, embracing compassion wholeheartedly, as well as emotionally resilient to avoid burnout and mental stress. (The rate of doctor suicides – as high as 40 per 100,000 – is more than twice that of the general population, according to the American Psychiatry Association.)

Further, oncologists must constantly switch roles to embrace these traits. So matching up brand values with the oncologist’s traits is the key to engaging this complex customer.

To reflect their trait of being intellectually curious and analytical, be the Informative Brand. That is, position off a key feature that sets your brand apart from others. This could be a new mechanism of action, a new class of therapy or a superior clinical endpoint. Not only provide information about your brand, but also expand the scope of your appeal to align with oncologists’ analytical personality. Brands that are too self-serving are less appealing than broad-based offerings to the informationally curious. At launch, the makers of Rituxan (rituximab) not only promoted the medicine’s unique biologic structure and how it meshes well with traditional chemotherapy, but they also created a broader initiative to educate the oncology community on new strategies for addressing B-cell-mediated pathologies.

To reflect their trait of emotional resiliency, be the Steadfast Brand. That is, position off a benefit that promises the potential for successful rebounds or heroic endurance. Like every other category of physician who deals with patients (radiologists need not apply), oncologists would love to deliver the bingo answer that brings permanent smiles to their patients’ faces. This is often impossible when treating cancer. So Steadfast Brands should seek out surrogate stories. Sadly, metastatic breast cancer is one of those diagnoses with a paucity of good news to relay. In contrast to Opdivo (nivolumab, an Informative Brand), with its monumental portrayal of data, Keytruda (pembrolizumab) effectively singles out small moments of triumph: bringing families closer together and making the most of the time that’s at hand.

To reflect their trait of fluency in the languages necessary to manage patients’ shifts and turns during their brand journey, be the Dialogue Brand. That is, position your brand as a source of enlightenment for unmet needs or underobserved dynamics. Nolvadex (tamoxifen) changed the course of how patients live with breast cancer by offering a new approach to total patient care in the adjuvant setting. It has served as an iconic brand over the decades, but it faced a difficult hurdle at launch: The parent company, Stuart Pharmaceuticals (now part of AstraZeneca), had no relationship with oncologists or breast cancer patients, and it was a complete novice at a party attended by well-connected giants. To gain a foothold, they partnered with several advocacy groups to launch Breast Cancer Awareness Day, the precursor to Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Such an unbranded and selfless dedication to the community effectively jump-started a new dialogue and propelled the brand and the company to respected heights.

To reflect their value of empathy, be the Compassionate Brand. That is, earn the position as one of the patient’s best friends, and let oncologists see your fealty. The process of care in many forms of cancer can be long and impersonal. While coping with the emotional impact of a cancer diagnosis, patients also have to change their lives to deal with the logistical concerns. One such accommodation involves the cycles of chemotherapy that patients must work into their schedule. Getting to an infusion center and putting their life on hold deprives them of their efforts to lead as normal a life as possible. Neulasta Onpro (pegfilgrastim) leverages the heritage benefits of its older sibling, Neupogen (filgrastim), and builds on this reputation by also being an agent of independence for patients. It features a wearable device that delivers the granulocyte colony-stimulating factor so essential to maintaining a cancer patient’s immune system during high-dose chemotherapy. Patients can receive this therapy on the go or in the comfort of their own home – an act of compassion delivered by the brand.

Let’s go back to the pat question “Why did you become an oncologist?” The inquiry does occasionally elicit a key trait of this unique specialist. During one of the research studies conducted with oncologists, I got this insightful response: “Because I fear death myself, and dealing with that possibility with my patients each day helps me face down my own mortality with greater courage.” Building insights like this into your brand by creating a mirror of oncologists’ own values will go far in engaging them in a responsible and effective way.