By Paul J. Pfleiderer, PhD, Chief Strategy Officer, TBWA\WorldHealth


For 22 years, pharma advertising has gone “all in” on TV.  In fact, 79% of advertising spent by pharma is on TV.[1]  Way more than general consumer.

Paul J. Pfleiderer, PhD

Why the love affair with TV? Ratings for primetime TV have been in a steady decline (up to 40%) since the birth of direct-to-consumer advertising in the mid 90’s.[2]  Sure, we can argue that perhaps TV is dead (the reality is, it’s not really dead – just having babies) but truth be told, 1/3 of the time that TV commercials air there is no one in the room.[3]

Perhaps we’re comfy with playing it “safe.”  Doing what we’ve always done.

Perhaps we just can’t let go of our love of the stroll…strolls on beaches…strolls with the family dog…strolls with friends that make us laugh out loud.

What if I told you everything we’ve been looking for as pharma advertisers has been right in front of us all along…ripe for DISRUPTION…RADIO.

Yup, radio.

The data don’t lie.  Yet it’s still virtually overlooked in our industry.


Disrupting Radio

The issue with radio might just simply be the term “radio.” It’s the perception of what it used to be that’s holding us back. Radio’s no longer the thing in your car or the clock radio on your nightstand. It’s time to redefine the medium and embrace that radio is truly everywhere.

Radio’s in your phone; it’s the smart speaker in your home’s kitchen and family room. Radio is residing in our lives in the places and spaces where we enjoy our favorite concerts. Radio is mobile, it’s omnipresent, and its potential is exploding.

The audio revolution is right here right now, and broadcast radio reaches a staggering 92% of consumers.[4] New platforms are growing. We see that streaming is up 43%,[5] podcasts have hit the mainstream with over 90MM monthly listeners and are on track to be a billion-dollar industry this year,[6] and smart speakers now boast 35% of household penetration, up 180% over the past 2 years[7] where they didn’t even exist too long before that. Couple those stats with the brilliant 114% uptick in music festival attendance,[8] and you’ll see that radio is a medium that healthcare brands should tune into.


Perception isn’t Everything

There’s a huge perception gap in the minds of advertisers. Advertisers perceive that audio time spent by listeners on broadcast radio is 52% and 48% on streaming. In truth, a robust 71% of audio time spent is on broadcast radio with only 29% of audio time spent on streaming.[9]  Data leads me to believe that it’s conventions, the status quo beliefs, that are holding back radio in our minds. Close your eyes, and when I say “broadcast radio” what comes to mind? Perhaps it’s the images of families in the ‘50s huddled around the big vacuum-tube radios. Or perhaps radio is so ubiquitous it doesn’t feel innovative or fresh. 

The truth is, radio is even stronger thanks to the advent of digital. With the emergence of smart speakers, radio is literally available in every room in the house, mirroring traditional AM/FM radio locations. Smart devices connect consumers and reach them where they live. 

Targeting? Thanks to smart speakers and apps we can ensure our messages and narratives are delivered in the same manner as all our other efforts.

So how do we break these conventions?  I propose that we abandon the term “radio” when referring to our brand engagement and adopt a different term—one that reflects the 21st century world of brands today, “Sound Strategy.

Again, the data don’t lie.

From a sound strategy, radio is #1 in scale. It’s the number one media in America reaching a whopping 92% of Americans every month.[10]

  • Radio provides an uncluttered space to elevate your brand; pharma ads have the highest SOV on TV, however, 44% of Americans are now “light TV viewers.”[11] Yet stats show 79% of pharma ads are still on TV and only 1% on radio[12]
  • Broadcast radio makes up a hefty 85% of total listening, so if Pandora/Spotify are your only audio strategy, you are reaching only 15% of the population[13]
  • Not only is radio the #1 most trusted medium in America,[14] your content will thrive and engage consumers when placed around radio’s trusted voices and programs

In terms of engagement, more time is spent on radio vs any other medium, ranking radio as #1. Consumers spend an impressive average of 102 minutes per day listening to radio. That’s 2x more than the 51 minutes average daily time spent per adult on social media.[15] And radio is often the last medium people hear before they go into a store,[16] visit a doctor, or even enter a pharmacy.


Inspired Sound Strategy

Agencies and brands invest countless hours thinking about the visual identity of a brand, but when was the last time we asked ourselves, “What does my brand SOUND like?”

Consumers tune into brands that tell the stories that they want to hear. iHeartMedia’s Proprietary Neuro Study proved sound drives better engagement than visual. And a 2019 study by Mindshare NeuroLab confirms an impressive 21%+ increase in emotional intensity for brand stories told just audibly versus ones that were told visually. Brand stories that are told audibly elicit 3X more positive brand associations than brand stories told just visually.[17]

Neuroscience studies measuring brain activity compared the same brand ad for both radio and TV across 5 key categories. Radio was the clear winner, delivering across all categories: up +20% for banking, +26% for CPG, +22% for retail, +11% for telecom, and an impressive +220% in entertainment.[18] 

We know brands create rapport with their audience by examining how best to engage those audiences. There are so many variables to explore. To cash in on the magic of the medium we can ask ourselves, “What stories do we want to tell about the brand, and who can best tell those stories? Should we tell different stories to different audiences across a variety of different platforms? How does timing affect our messaging? Should the message be different for an insomnia ad in the morning vs the evening? Is the message complicated and does the consumer need more time to understand?” Lots to think about.

This audio landscape provides a fertile ground for brand innovation in pharma and an array of vibrant approaches to consider. For example:

  • Consider how to use Scale of broadcast radio to drive mass awareness and intent
  • Consider how to use Frequency, whether it’s :05 bursts reminding consumers to ask their doctor about your brand or concentrating on a time slot such as early morning or afternoon drive time or total saturation on multiple stations over time
  • Consider how to use the Trust instilled by podcast personalities to tell real, human stories of how they are dealing with and supporting someone suffering from a condition and reduce the stigma surrounding certain conditions
  • Consider how to use Engagement to drive action in both on-air and podcast broadcasts creating a call to action to ask your doctor or pharmacist
  • Consider using Storytelling with inspiring and educational branded podcasts to break down complicated topics or conditions
  • Consider how to apply Data to better inform broadcast radio – from 1st party to 3rd party healthcare platforms to TV viewing habits and more. iHeartMedia, for instance, has been a pioneer in applying the targeting and efficiency we know from digital to the scale of broadcast radio via their Smart Audio platform, making traditional media, well, smarter
  • Consider the power of Music in the healing journey to elevate mood/help alleviate certain conditions like anxiety, depression, insomnia, and as procedural support.
  • Consider power of Moments to build and connect with communities


An Authentic and Intimate Connection

From a sound strategy, the strength of radio and the podcasting boon allow for a more cohesive intimate experience with the brand. We are living in a world where brands need a healthy dose of authenticity—even more so in healthcare. We can look to radio/podcasts to provide authenticity and intimacy via more robust brand stories.

Authenticity is a hot-button issue for brands. They stand to benefit from radio’s stellar reputation as one of the most trusted mediums. According to iHeartMedia Primary Research, radio is considered an impressive 81% more trustworthy than cable television and 27% more trustworthy than network television.[19]

A sound strategy creates a unique environment for connection. Radio engages, it’s real, it’s human, and it showcases conversations. Radio is not music, it’s companionship; 75% of people say companionship is the primary reason they listen to radio.[20] Radio’s intimate and inclusive nature makes it a medium that helps people feel less alone and humanizes conditions. Imagine the power radio could have in helping people newly diagnosed with serious illnesses feel less isolated and less afraid.

As a sound strategy, radio provides unlimited opportunities to explore how brands can leverage on-air influencers to tell the brand stories that we want to share with the world. Radio stats from iHeartMedia’s 2019 Power of Personality illustrate that 79% of listeners value the opinions and perspectives of radio personalities, 73% perceive a deep connection with a favorite radio personality, and 66% of listeners have considered or purchased a product recommended by their favorite radio personality. [21]

These data show me that audio succeeds by bridging the brand and consumer, by cultivating human relationships and experiences, and uniting communities with shared interest. The world of radio engages listeners, offers companionship, provides both information and trust, showcases live + human conversation and is a constant presence.


Sound Strategy for 21st Century Brands

The future of brave brands is developing a “sound strategy” with radio at the core. It’s the time and space to be disruptive and rebellious during our planning season for 2020. Our challenge as an industry is to embrace something that was once perceived as old but is now emerging as one of the most powerful mediums ever. As fearless healthcare marketers, it’s our mission to challenge the status quo and disrupt our current perceptions of radio/podcasts.

For those who are worried that fair balance will be a deterrent or a turnoff, let’s look to find the right solution together. The requirement for fair balance did not stop us from creative TV spots; we found a way to be compliant and engaging.  Let’s work together to find similar solutions with our sound creative.

Radio is alive, ready, willing, and able to be a powerful player in the marketing mix and poised to lead healthcare brands towards inspired brand building with over-the-top engagement.

Podcasts and Radio provide healthcare brands with an exciting platform. Start a radio revolution; let’s be rebels and commit, as an industry, to creating brand stories and experiences that usher in a new “sound strategy” for brave 21st century brands.


[1] Rx Spend: Kantar, Jan 2018 – Aug 2019

[2] TV Decline:  The Nielsen Company, Live, +7, Primetime, M-Sat, 8-11p, Sun 7-11p;

[3] TV Ad Viewability:  Tvision, IPG MediaLab, 2019

[4] Broadcast Radio Reach:  Nielsen Total Audience Report

[5] Streaming:  Statista Digital Music, Music Streaming Users 2017 vs. 2019

[6] Podcasts: Edison “Infinite Dial 2019”, Monthly Podcast Listeners

[7] Smart Speaker: Loup Ventures, 2019

[8] Music Festivals: Nielsen Music 360 2019 vs 2017

[9] Audio Time Spent: Advertiser Perceptions; May 2017; iHeartMedia/Ipsos, Audio Day Journey, P13-64, 2018

[10] Broadcast Radio Reach:  Nielsen Total Audience Report

[11] Light TV Viewers:  Nielsen, PPM March/April 2018, P18-49

[12] Rx Spend: Kantar, Jan 2018 – Aug 2019

[13] Audio Time Spent: Advertiser Perceptions; May 2017; iHeartMedia/Ipsos, Audio Day Journey, P13-64, 2018

[14] Radio Most Trusted:  Ask Suzy, December, 2018

[15] Time Spent: Nielsen Total Audience Report 1Q19, P18+

[16] Last Medium Before Shopping:  iHeartMedia “Influencer Marketing”, 2017

[17] Brand Stories & Audio: Mindshare NeuroLab, 2019

[18] Sound Drives Engagement:  iHeartMedia Proprietary Study, October 2014

[19] Trust:  iHM Trust in Media Survey, Dec 2018

[20] Companionship:  Bridge Ratings, 2017

[21] Influence: iHeartMedia, Power of Personality Refresh, June 2019, Among Weekly Radio Listeners P18-44