When it comes to millennials, patient centricity pretty much equals authenticity, said John Vieira, executive director, global brand strategy at Daiichi Sankyo.

Millennials present a study in contrasts. They’re at once active on social platforms, but not always willing to connect; skeptical, yet open to advertising; distrusting of authority, yet loyal to brands.

That contradictory modus operandi — aside from having the makings of an MBA case study — also means millennials are a puzzle for marketers trying to connect in the real world. “We work with consumer brands to reach millennials, and they’re struggling,” noted Derek Flanzraich, CEO and founder of next-gen media company Greatist.com, which targets health and wellness content toward Gen Y.

See also: MM&M e-Book: Millennial Patients; Ensuring Your Brand is Relevant

Where does that leave pharma, which — for reasons legitimate and not — is at best a fast follower of these trends and decidedly not on the leading edge?

Answer? Behind and probably falling farther behind every day. Indeed, data released in 2017 show marketing budgets aimed at millennials to be a rather-modest 9% and 12% for pharma manufacturers and healthcare agencies, respectively. Asked to give their reaction to that data, the consensus among brand, media, and agency marketers was that this is inadequate, given the sheer size and influence of the audience.

See also: Some brands thought to shift online ad dollars, creating uncertainty for WebMD

When it comes to millennials, patient centricity pretty much equals authenticity, said John Vieira, executive director, global brand strategy at Daiichi Sankyo. “One of the discerning characteristics of this audience versus others is they can probably smell inauthenticity real fast,” he said. “And so the challenge — if you really want to go full on with the millennial group — is, ‘How authentic are you prepared to be?’”

Vieira and Flanzraich spoke on a panel held during the ePharma Summit in March to contextualize the data, which came from a study called the MM&M/KNect365 Millennial Pharma Marketing Study 2017.


The survey, which encompassed about 140 pharma manufacturers and 140 healthcare communications agencies, also showed that marketers in both cohorts — for the most part — consider themselves to be at the beginner to moderate stage of the millennial-marketing maturity curve. Thus, this market, as Flanzraich’s reckons, is “entirely and profoundly different than any other demographic we’ve ever seen.” Neither brands nor their agencies are well equipped to handle it. The survey further solidifies just how behind pharma is in being able to influence millennial health attitudes.

That situation won’t change overnight. “It’s going to be slow going,” said Gary Scheiner, EVP and chief creative officer at ghg, and another one of the panelists. “To change that battleship’s direction is going to take time.”

See also: Millennial staffers at agencies seek work-life balance and strong supervisors

Scheiner advised pharma companies to start engaging, if they haven’t already done so. “You become a bull’s-eye for pharma when you have an illness, when somebody can write you a script, or you can get into a doctor’s office — and millennials don’t think that way,” said Scheiner. “Millennials think in terms of wholeness, healthiness, and wellness and they’re looking for companies that will make that happen.”

By the time they actually get into that bull’s-eye of being a patient, “the distance between the two is going to be pretty significant,” Scheiner predicted. “If pharma can start embracing now how to talk to them and become relevant to them, it’s going to pay dividends in the future.”


Pharma is behind the curve in terms of trying to stay social, and millennials are well ahead of it. For instance, while some pharma brands are just now launching their first branded Facebook page on the decade-old platform, millennials practically grew up interacting on this and other sites geared toward user-generated content. They are used to two-way dialogue. Catching up will require pharma to give up some control of content, which is not something it’s always comfortable doing.

Though there is a great disparity here, if the industry does engage proactively, it stands to reap big rewards later on.

See also: The 50-plus consumer is driven by curiosity and wonder, finds Ketchum study

“We’re talking about health, not soft drinks or running sneakers, so the quicker you can become relevant to them, that’s something that’s with them for their entire life,” Scheiner said. “So you’ve got to be honest from the beginning and you really have to be a partner to them. That means giving up a little bit of yourself and being a little bit vulnerable as a brand, as a company. But I believe it will pay huge dividends.”

How can brands make the shift? First and foremost, embrace wellness messaging, Scheiner urged. Once patients do become sick, you’ll have earned the trust upon which a healthcare relationship can be built. “The trick,” he said, “is playing to this audience’s preferred channels, which are mostly digital and social.”

See also: Zika campaign highlights millennial interest in work with a purpose

In terms of striking the right tone in content, Flanzraich, himself a millennial, offered some advice. “We like good advertising when it’s relevant to us, and it radically changes our perception,” he said. “And we quickly can change and embrace something when someone is speaking to us in the right language. That’s hard to do. You could build that relationship, but it needs to be around a much broader definition and understanding of the role the company is playing.”

What about the fact that millennials are simply not yet the target market for pharma’s products? Even though Gen Y may not be in pharma product funnel right now, there’s a good chance that these young people are caring for someone who is. And that can be the opening for a relationship.


“I look at the millennial cohort not necessarily in terms of the product lines that we are directing to them,” Vieira explained. “But they are a very important part of that caregiver experience around medications, as well. And they’re going to get information, they’re going to influence a lot of people that we may be targeting even in other therapeutic areas using the very same means that we used in the other areas of their lives.

“And so I don’t think we can ignore them or the way that they consume information or want to be communicated with,” Vieira continued, “just by the mere fact they may not [currently] be a direct patient [or] consumer of our products.”

See also: Leadership Exchange: Engaging the Millennial Doctor

Ditto for healthcare professionals. Asked during the panel discussion what he found most surprising about the study results, Robert Gargiulo, who is director, integrated marketing, for Mylan Consumer Health, posed his own question: “Why aren’t we marketing to the millennial HCPs the way we want to market to the millennial consumers or our future patients? We really need to use the same techniques that millennials want to be engaged with on the HCP side.”


In addition to their markedly distinct channel preferences, younger people are known to look outside the pharmacy for healthcare, as 59% of millennials favor alternatives to medication, while 55% prefer OTC meds (per SONAR/J. Walter Thompson statistics, 2017). Moreover, a minority of millennials (41%), as opposed to a majority of respondents from other generations (68%), view doctors as the best sources of health information (per ghg/Kantar Health statistics, 2016). And 32% of Americans ages 18 to 34 years old think that they could be a doctor with little or no training (Truth About Wellness, 2016).

Add to that the fact that Gen Y is, well, healthier than older audiences, and healthcare advertisers are well and truly scrambling to connect. Where pharma struggles the most is mainly in patient centricity, manufacturers responding to the MM&M/KNect365 study said. That may hinder pharma’s efforts to engage.

See also: How different generations form online “tribes”

“In consumer goods, you are allowed that direct line to the patient [or] individual, whereas it’s quite different in healthcare,” observed Vieira. “We all have to be much more cognizant of limitations and restrictions on having authentic relationships with an individual person. So when pharma marketers are challenged with the idea of ‘become more patient-centric,’ for a pharma manufacturer you kind of scratch your head and say, ‘It’s really tough to do so, in pharma and in healthcare in general.’”

That leads us to the steepest of all challenges for those working in this profession: regulatory constraints. “User-generated content is very difficult for pharma to do,” as is video and visual content, Gargiulo noted. “In partnership with the folks in med-legal, we need to find ways to get this material out there. I really feel on some level our hands are tied.”

Creative opportunities beckon, though. For instance, Greatist.com launched a messenger bot on Facebook that offers daily health tips. As of early March — only two weeks after launch — it had garnered 2 million interactions and 20,000 daily users. “The space is so unbelievably open for experimentation,” Flanzraich said, as “73% of millennials would rather be healthy than wealthy. This is a group that, frankly, is aching for new types of solutions.”

See also: Insurers seek to challenge millennial ‘invincibility’

Experimenting will require marketers to find a way to navigate regulatory. Agencies and clients must push one another out of their comfort zones, but — given the near agreement in millennial budgeting — that’s not happening now, said Gargiulo.

If anything, “The challenge is for agency partners and for clients to break away from that ‘group think’ and say, ‘You need to [act] differently,’” he added. In general, the two see the world similarly. “We don’t challenge each other — we’re both afraid to admit we’re wrong when we don’t know. Some of it’s going to have to change.”

Scheiner focused on opportunities to improve this process. He mentioned a TV spot he did last year for which the client invited the company’s regulatory person along. “She spent the week with us in Los Angeles, and it made a world of difference,” he said. “Every shot that we got, we knew she was going to bless. And every time we had an issue, we knew we could coursecorrect it on location. It saved everybody time, money, and aggravation, and we got though the process easily.”

See also: Why competing agencies are joining forces to give parents more time off

Not every regulatory person has accepted, however. “We’re all in this together to make the brand successful,” Scheiner said. “Let’s work together on ways to do that.”

Wooing more millennials into healthcare marketing, meanwhile, could help narrow the divide, but recruiting young people into medical advertising is as tough as ever. “It’s really hard to find 20 somethings who want to go into that side of the business, when it’s far more appealing to go work on Kraft Mac & Cheese,” Scheiner said.

There are a lot of examples of pharma brands that have successfully engaged, so the biggest hurdles aren’t so much regulatory in nature as they are “a function of pharma marketers still being about pushing a product, not about solving a problem,” said Vieira.


It’s understandable that marketers in this space are product-focused, after spending 10 to 12 years and about a billion dollars developing an asset. But, Vieira said, “Biopharma marketers [need] to take a step back and think about what is the problem they’re trying to solve, and I guarantee you will find a way to get to that consumer in the right tone or channel.”

In the middle of the “regulatory as bogeyman” discussion, Flanzraich interjected to explain a little about millennial buying habits. “Millennials will buy products from Instagram celebrities that have no validation, that have no information, that are built by companies they’ve never heard of — it’s terrifying,” he said. “But they trust a different type of an influencer and authority, and — if anything — have bucked against traditional authority.”

See also: Valeant LGBTQ campaign seeks to avoid stereotypes

This suggests that healthcare marketers who look for ways to forge relationships with millennials early on could benefit in the form of better compliance and enhanced sales. If patient centricity equals authenticity with this audience, “then for pharma to really go out there, you have to be prepared to live authentically in that group,” said Vieira. “It will be interesting to see how things evolve.”


Campaign: #ActuallySheCan
Company: Allergan
Brand: Unbranded, but Allergan markets a line of oral contraceptives
Agency: Brain Reserve

The #ActuallySheCan campaign answers the emotive declaration adopted by young women across the country: “I can’t even.”

“One of the things that’s very special about this generation is that they’re the most educated, empowered, successful generation of women we’ve ever seen,” explained Herm Cukier, VP of women’s healthcare for Allergan. “They’re looking for ways and means to overcome the negativity and the obstacles in their life, moving from ‘I can’t even’ to ‘actually you can’ and ‘actually she can.’”

In seeking an authentic and balanced tone, Allergan partnered with celebrities, including actor Lea Michele, reality TV personality Lo Bosworth, and YouTube personality iJustine.

The campaign was “not a one-way dialogue between a company and its customers,” said Bill Meury, president of branded pharmaceuticals for Allergan. “Millennials don’t want to receive information that way. We know that, and it’s certainly multifactorial and fully integrated. Typically, the communication channel in healthcare was in a physician’s office and a hospital — now it’s everywhere and it’s 24/7.”

Campaign: Perfectly Imperfect
Company: Teva Women’s Health
Brand: Plan B One Step
Agency: Rx Mosaic Health and FCB Health 

Research revealed that nine out of 10 women ages 18 to 34 reported they have felt pressure to be perfect. Armed with this knowledge, the campaign focused on reminding women that life is never perfect — no matter what.

A media tour kicked off the effort. Dr. Diana Ramos, an OB/GYN and women’s health expert, and Carly Aquilino and Nessa, both of MTV’s Girl Code, were spokespeople.

Events on college campuses included panel discussions and a video photo booth where women could share at #perfectlyimperfect.

The team launched one of the first Instagram accounts for a pharma brand. The website includes videos and tests knowledge concerning emergency contraception.

Media impressions hit 150 million. The website had more than 1 million visits, and 1,500 student attendees reached 850,000 people via social media with 100% positive engagement. There were interviews in millennial outlets like HuffPost Live, Zimbio, and Hello Beautiful, promotional support from MTV and Her Campus, as well as the kick off of social stories effort on Instagram.

Campaign: Eyeful 
Company: Abbott
Brand: Lasik
Agency: Weber Shandwick

The campaign, an MM&M 2016 Best Use of Relationship Marketing gold award winner, featured a Tumblr blog to increase awareness of Lasik procedures among millennials, achieving an engagement rate of more than eight times the original goal.

Content included BuzzFeed-style listicles that were intended to remind readers of the hassles associated with contacts and glasses and longer-form articles to address common questions and misconceptions about Lasik surgery. One judge cited the content as “fresh, conversational, and non-pharma.”

In the six months the campaign ran, Eyeful reached a 6.9% engagement rate. Nearly 55% of traffic referred to backinfocus.com, Abbott’s DTC site, from the Tumblr page. Looking at all 12 conversion goals combined, 113.7% of traffic referred from Eyeful to backinfocus.com converted, versus 22.5% of the DTC site’s overall traffic.