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The Pulse of the Pharmaceutical Industry

Finding humanity in pharma marketing

Written by: | | Dated: Wednesday, August 17th, 2016


To build brands in this most personal of industries, healthcare marketers must first make the human connection.


By Julie Levine, group account director at Intouch Solutions




Nearly every force at work in our industry, an industry dealing with the most human and personal of matters, pushes us away from making the human connection. Clients are focused on the differentiating clinical characteristics of their drugs to the exclusion of anything else, no matter how obscure those characteristics might be to the ordinary person. FDA doesn’t really let us talk about quality of life, or say things like, “You’ll be able to spend more time with your grandchildren.” The end result of all this is a lot of utilitarian messaging about lung function ratings or disorders that require five-letter acronyms and very little about how any of this might actually change the story of whomever is on the other end of the message.

And that is a shame, because marketing at its most powerful is about creating a human connection and generating an emotional response that ties to the brand. Great campaigns are made so not by the amount of details about the product they can squeeze in but by the simple stories they tell and how those stories align with the stories of the audience. In one of the first great television commercials – Chevrolet’s “Boy meets Impala” in 1958 – exactly 21 words are spoken across two minutes of moving pictures, and none of those words have anything to do with the car’s horsepower, speed, or fuel efficiency. Instead, the images tell a story without words designed to elicit a powerful emotional response (especially in parents of teens), and associate that response with Chevy. Look it up on YouTube and you’ll see what I mean.

What makes “Boy meets Impala” such a powerful bit of marketing? The story makes a human connection at the most basic and emotional level. That sort of connection is what makes us distinct as humans; shared experiences that remind us that we’re more than just our daily tasks or what we do, but what we feel and believe about ourselves and others. That’s the humanity that pharma marketers must capture, no matter what roadblocks are placed in our way.

And it is perfectly possible, even with all the in-bred limitations of our industry. For the evidence, see Pfizer’s recent campaign for Viagra – the one with the attractive, age-appropriate woman with the British accent. “It’s just you and your honey,” you know? Viagra’s marketers took a potentially embarrassing topic and humanized it by looking straight into the viewer’s eyes and telling him that his problem is both quite common and quite fixable. And the viewer, who just a moment ago might have been thinking that no one would ever have sex with him again, has now been given permission to deal with his problem, has been released from the stigma. This campaign does a masterful job of identifying the emotional triggers that prevent people from wanting to get help and expressing them in a human way, in a direct dialogue with the viewer – a highly unusual tactic for any pharma brand. Too many ads for pharma brands seem to consist of a woman or man talking to a doctor and then going off to do something in a field with their spouse/grandchild/dog under a shining sun, while some narrator describes the product, without a single word pointed directly at the viewer – honestly, they all start to look the same after a while. The Viagra ad is disruptive because a sexy woman lying on a bed looks straight into the camera and tells the viewer that ED is completely okay – these things happen, we can fix it. Those are the very words that the viewer dealing with ED is craving to hear – the perfect human connection.

Outside the world of ED, one current pharma campaign that does a great job of making the human connection is Merck’s “Why am I so awake?” The title itself is a spin on a commonly used phrase that comes from a place of base emotion rather than anything technical or complex – just a simple question that anyone who has trouble sleeping might ask. And the campaign’s website focuses on the problem and how it makes you feel and then ties those feelings to scientific cause-and-effect: “The feeling of being trapped between wake and sleep has more science behind it than you may think.” The campaign uses cartoon images rather than real people – not necessarily the best choice when trying to build a human connection – but those cartoons do an excellent job of showing someone who is sad and likely worrying, not just tired.

Even further out, beyond the bounds of pharma but still in the world of personal care (though coincidentally still sleep-related), is the Tempur-pedic “You’re important, sleep like it,” Mother’s Day campaign. The campaign emphasizes the difficulties of finding time to connect with yourself and how hard that can feel – how, for some moms, sleep is a need but not a priority. After asking real moms – not actresses – about their busy lives and lack of sleep, the campaign brings in families to express emotions and love to their moms – and gives the moms new beds for better sleep. I cry every time I see it. Once again, not a word is spoken about the scientific properties of the brand – the campaign focuses not on the utility of sleep or the selling points of a Tempur-pedic but the bed as a gift to express love.

And there are plenty of folks making emotional human connections in health care outside the marketing field too. The Lion’s Mouth Opens is a short film made recently by the documentarian Lucy Walker about a young woman who decides to find out whether she has the gene for Huntington’s Disease. So far it’s earned nominations from a dozen different film festivals, been shortlisted for the Academy Awards, been broadcast on HBO, and earned all sorts of raves from critics over its emotional impact – “The most emotionally devastating film at the Sundance Film Festival this year was a short,” said one. It doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to imagine an HD brand directly sponsoring content like this to build awareness of the human side of dealing with the disease – and other brands, in other disease areas, doing the same.

Making the connection

So how can we achieve human connections in our marketing? The first step is to let go of the idea that product claims need to be the central thread of any branded communication. Too many pharma DTC campaigns feel like jazzed-up physician communications. Given our regulatory environment, it’s no surprise that marketers are afraid to move outside the “Doctor explaining clinical information” model – but all that usually accomplishes is confusing or boring the audience. We need to back off on the product claims and see more ordinary humans reaching out to other ordinary humans to talk about problems they share.

Knowing your audience

The second step is to know our audience. And not just their age or income or number of children – their hopes, dreams, and fears. That’s how human connections get made, by touching the powerful emotions bubbling underneath the day-to-day lives of patients – the hope to live and feel better, the dream of seeing a child’s wedding, the fear of embarrassment and aging and pain and death. The success of Pfizer’s pretty British lady, for example, begins with an understanding of the hopes and fears of middle-aged men with ED. And for all the seeming openness of modern society, for all the (over-)sharing on social media and elsewhere, the fact remains that many if not most diseases are surrounded by shame and ignorance and fear and stigma. Without awareness of these barriers, we have little hope of reaching past them to the emotional triggers underneath. And so: know our audience.

Get personal

And finally, we must never be afraid to look our audience members straight in the eye and communicate with each of them person to person. Patients don’t make emotional connections by watching set pieces of strangers in doctors’ offices. And so our communications need to be conversation, not staged performance art.

We health care marketers have the good fortune to be situated in the most personal, the most emotional, the most human business of all, the business of personal health. If we are to serve our purpose, that fact must be the foundation of everything we do. 

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