Healthcare brands turn to emotion, to better tell their stories

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It's never been easy for pharmaceutical companies or healthcare brands to authentically engage with patients or with doctors.

Yet, slowly but surely, some are starting to use new tools like virtual reality and artificial intelligence as well as proven strategies like humor and storytelling as they seek to improve a customer experience long considered reactive and inauthentic.

Gilead Sciences, a seriously research-minded drugmaker, has been making jokes about sex on Tumblr, to raise awareness about its HIV prevention pill. Merck and Takeda are testing the technological waters, trying out Amazon's Alexa and other forms of machine learning, while UnitedHealthcare identified the most boring topic in healthcare — ICD codes, which are used by doctors to bill insurance companies — and made a campaign using them that is sweet, simple, and funny.

See also: Philips takes the pharma Grand Prix at Cannes

And then there's AstraZeneca, which is working with Babylon Health, a startup AI platform, and the U.K's National Health Service to help people better cope with COPD — a notoriously hard disease to manage — while also lowering healthcare costs.

“Our industry has depended more on the innovation and the science labs to be the driver of our business,” John McCarthy, AstraZeneca's VP of global commercial excellence, said during a video interview with MM&M. “But if we take that approach and really think about it from the scientist's perspective, how do we do our research? How do we [on the commercial side] design the right service for patients and take that same kind of approach to solving the problems of a patient that our scientists have taken?”

This move toward authenticity is years in the making for the healthcare industry, which is bound by regulatory constraints and an internal corporate culture reluctant to try new things.

But in recent years, some companies and brands have started to experiment with how they communicate with patients and healthcare professionals, whether that's through simpler language, humor, and emotional storytelling or using new technology platforms, like AI or VR.

See also: Pharma's complexity calls for a closer look at creativity

It's not unheard of for medical brands to form a persona. Since the early days of medical advertising, there have been numerous examples. Nevertheless, for many years, drug ads in the U.S. have, for the most part, simply informed viewers about a drug, what condition or disease it treated, and then instructed them to talk to their doctors.

Now, the approach to pharma marketing is becoming much more conversational — and much more likely to look and feel like an ad for a consumer brand. Philips Healthcare, last year's pharma Grand Prix winner, told a heartwarming story about patients with respiratory conditions, a film that relied heavily on the empathy of the viewer and less on the clinical benefits of the product, in a manner that healthcare manufacturers have rarely done before.



“The power of emotional storytelling is actually becoming something really strong,” said Chris Palmer, president of CDM New York. “There is more interest and more value from that.”

What is successful now are “campaigns that link to emotional truths about the human condition,” said Matt Connor, executive creative director at Wunderman Health. “Brands struggle with it. They are accustomed to talking about the benefits. They are uncomfortable moving above the brand.”

But not all brands. Wunderman this year worked with GlaxoSmithKline's Theraflu, an over-the-counter cold-and-flu treatment, to develop a series of mini-documentaries about people who “power through” the flu, in order to to continue doing work that helps other people, such as providing food to homeless communities in Los Angeles. “That is the challenge,” Connor said, “to find a storyline and elements that truly support the brand and the brand purpose rather than forcing something together that is not organic.”



Consumer packaged goods brands like Dove and tech firms like Apple and Amazon have been “far more advanced in how they've approached things like creativity,” said Shwen Gwee, Biogen's head of digital strategy for global clinical operations. Now, some drugmakers and other traditional players are following suit.

“The whole real push is toward...the experience,” he added.

This is one reason why healthcare brands are incorporating rather unexpected details into their advertising programs, whether that's using music or immediate responses to cultural moments taking place on social media, said Robin Shapiro, group resident for North America at TBWA\WorldHealth.

See also: Profiles in Creativity

When people with ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease have posted photos online of themselves with their colostomy bags, that has created opportunities for companies that make therapies that treat these diseases to respond and join the online conversations. For a consumer brand, this may seem like Advertising 101. For pharma, it's a risk.  

Pharma “clients are not used to moving at the speed of culture,” Shapiro said.

But that level of discomfort is offset by “a great need and desire for authenticity,” she added.

In both the U.S. and abroad, how drugs are priced has become a major political and public health issue, and pharma companies have been criticized for their slow or tone-deaf responses to this issue, a strategy that has further damaged trust between brands and their customers.

In the U.S. market, the overall cost of treatment, whether that's a hospital stay or cancer treatment, is now a national debate. Lowering the prices of drugs was one of the few issues agreed upon by all candidates in the 2016 presidential election. The question of whether to ban certain uses of direct-to-consumer drug ads was another topic broached by Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

See also: Patients are taking on DTC ads. How will drugmakers respond?

On a global level, governments in the U.K., Japan, and Colombia in the last year have increasingly cracked down on high-priced drugs, notably for products like Bristol-Myers Squibb's Opdivo, an immuno-oncology therapy lauded for its innovative approach to killing tumors but at a very high price, and Novartis' cancer drug Gleevec.

The debate about pricing has likely contributed to ongoing reputation issues for the pharma industry, which has traditionally focused on sales. Selling a product, selling a brand, selling a company. Campaigns that can directly connect with patients or physicians on an emotional level may help industry finally go beyond the task of selling, and help create the kind of trust often found between consumers and CPG, automaker, and technology brands.

“In an age, though, where trust and value are the real currency, trust is earned, not sold,” says Gwee. “There is a move in healthcare to earn that trust, create that value, and make that experience.”


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