Pharma Marketing as First Mover? Cannes Offers a Glimpse

Marc Iskowitz is editor in chief of MM&M.
Marc Iskowitz is editor in chief of MM&M.

Often criticized for a lack of creativity, or too much, healthcare marketers seem to be in perpetual search of the golden mean. Can an industry that makes money from selling pills and biologics, devices and diagnostics adopt an appropriately non-consumerist approach?

As day two of the Lions Health festival dawned — progress seemed at hand.

The evening earlier, jurors had lauded the films of Breathless Choir as masterful blends of nonconformist creativity and awarded Philips and Ogilvy & Mather London the pharma Grand Prix.

See also: Philips takes the pharma Grand Prix at Cannes

And what of last year's Grand Prix winner, AstraZeneca and DigitasLBi? Their entry, for disease-awareness campaign LVNG With, failed to medal this year. But the two co-led a talk that described the campaign, which seeks to help patients with lung cancer overcome their isolation via community building.

Whereas 2015's Take It from a Fish utilized wisecracking carp, this time out the marketers struck a more serious tone, as befits the disease. They didn't mince words.

“We really need to build meaningful relationships with people and sustain them,” said AstraZeneca's Elizabeth Egan, executive director, global digital strategy and innovation.

“We didn't sit at AstraZeneca towers creating content we thought people would like,” she added. “We co-created absolutely everything with patients,” including stories of people who have faced the disease head-on.

It was notable that they were talking about overcoming shame among lung- cancer patients and being sure patients are treated with respect — another sign industry is confronting hard issues like identifying with vulnerable populations and opening up about its struggle to connect in an authentic way.

Indeed, the web has brought about a “big step change” in the way pharma companies view patients, noted Mary Ann Belliveau, Twitter's national health and wellness director.

In giving patients voices on social platforms, firms are adopting a new lexicon, said Victor Kara, associate VP, global digital and multichannel marketing at Sanofi. He said millennial students attending Lions Health said they appreciate that pharma is trying new ways to reach them.

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

According to Kara, these young adults told him, “Advertising to us was something to promote consumption ... It's not just doctors or nurses [bettering people's lives], but now we can, too, through our response via Instagram, all these different [platforms].”

His comment, as told to me during a recap I moderated back in the Haymarket Hive, prompted Belliveau to add, “For an industry long known as the slow mover, healthcare could be the first industry to change the fundamentals of marketing ... [and] connect with people about things that are important to them and they really need.”

To do so, pharma must first get past its own conservative nature. But Kara predicted that more brand managers will learn to speak this new language. “For 2017, 2018, and beyond,” he said, “you will see campaigns and connections happening at levels we were too scared to try before.”

Marc Iskowitz is editor in chief of MM&M.