Draining the bathwater

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James Chase
James Chase

If you are still selling goods and services by blanketing the world with advertising, trying to persuade or entertain or flatter consumers into submission, you are doing things all wrong.

This is the “simple truth” that Bob Garfield, advertising commentator-cum-consultant, and Doug Levy, CEO of MEplusYOU, define and attempt to address in a new book “Can't Buy Me Like.”

The authors declare that the “consumer era” has given way to a new “relationship era,” in which “human needs, human values and human connections will define success or failure for brands.” Four digitally fueled forces, they say, have converged to reshape our marketing futures:  The collapse of mass media, the increasingly transparency business environment, the evolution of social media/connectivity and the rise to prominence of trust.

The solution they prescribe is to first search deep into your organization and define your ­values and the true purpose of your existence. And forevermore conduct yourself through each transaction and dialogue in accordance with these values. To survive and thrive, you must build trust with your audience and you can only do this through authenticity, trans­parency and accountability.

The good news in the long term (and the bad in the short) is that, according to the authors, if you answered the question “What is my core purpose?” with “To make a profit,” then you have already lost. This, in a nutshell, is what the pharmaceutical industry is grappling with right now.

Of course, Garfield and Levy are writing about consumer marketing in general, and for a general audience. And while the trends and ideas are equally applicable, pharma can point to some inevitable nuance-driven exceptions. For a start, we could add a “fifth force” to the core causes: the demise of the blockbuster. Not only have pharma's media become super-fragmented, so have its products.

Then there is the purpose of DTC advertising. Since 1997, medications have been advertised to the public to generate awareness of both their availability and of the disease states that they treat. In comparison, there aren't too many people who are unaware of the benefits of cars or toothpaste or beer.

Neverthless, DTC advertising—at least in its conventional broadcast-and-print form—is in decline, as Matthew Arnold documents in this month's cover story, “The DTC Drain” (page 32). Overall, spending in 2012 fell by 13% to $3.4 billion, marking a 21% drop since 2009. The fact that the biggest-spending company, Pfizer, cut its DTC budget by 30%, yet kept the top spot, tells its own story. Now consider that six of the top 20 spending brands in 2012 are due to go off-patent in the next couple of years.

Wholesale changes in pharma marketing are already under way, of course, and central to these approaches is the notion of putting the patient first. Most of the industry is already making noises to this effect. However, as Garfield and Levy caution, lip service is not enough. People will see right through you and they will make you pay for it.

But if the notion of pharma being truly a patients-before-profit industry seems a little far-fetched, consider the words of George Wilhelm Merck in 1950: “We try never to forget that medicine is for the people. It is not for the profits. The profits follow, and if we have remembered that, they have never failed to appear. The better we have remembered it, the larger they have been.”

Way to go, George.
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