Photo credit: Chandler Crowell

The year was 2011, and Erik Hollander had a challenge on his hands. He’d just been elevated into a major role as the first CMO of Philips’ home healthcare solutions business, which houses a range of sleep and respiratory care products.

The group, based in Pittsburgh, had always done brisk business. But in advance of the implementation of the Affordable Care Act and the ceilings it would impose on pricing, growth had slowed.

“There had always been so much demand that they never did much marketing,” Hollander recalls. “Now you had a booming market, with more and more competition. It dawned on us all that just creating the latest and greatest products for COPD patients was not going to drive significant growth anymore.”

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Hollander’s mission was thus defined. On one hand, he and his team had to rebuild a marketing engine essentially from scratch, adding back-burnered digital tactics along the way. On the other, they were starting from a position of strength — and in a pair of categories, sleep and respiratory care, where Philips knew its way around.

After relocating from the Netherlands — he previously worked on the company’s oral healthcare and mother and child care lines, which were based in Amsterdam — Hollander set about reviving his group’s marketing apparatus.

He’s done so using a mix of tactics that tap everything from traditional channels to social media. Hollander casually brings up what he describes as “a little YouTube video that cost almost nothing” promoting Philips’ DreamWear CPAP mask, which promptly rang up six million views.

His group has enjoyed grander successes in the mainstream realm, most notably with its Breathless Choir campaign, which detailed the efforts of individuals with chronic respiratory conditions to sing the way they did prior to their illnesses. Breathless Choir, produced with Ogilvy’s London outpost, was awarded the Pharma Grand Prix at Cannes Lions last year.

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While Hollander is warmed by the awards recognition, he believes the campaign’s true innovation was the message it delivered to patients and physicians.

“The reaction from a brand-preference perspective was great, which is fine. But what we needed to get across was how important it is for COPD patients to live a healthy and active life,” he explains. “Ask a physician, when patients become more sedentary, they stop living, which creates a much faster progression of the disease.”

Hollander doesn’t come out and say it, but one senses he believes such bigger-picture thinking is largely absent in the respiratory and sleep care categories. He describes his current charge as “transforming a more creative occupation into a science” while simultaneously pushing for more openness and awareness around certain conditions.

“I’ll give you an example. In China, snoring is still considered a healthy aspect of sleep — a nuisance for bed partners, sure, but a healthy aspect of life. Hopefully we can help people better understand symptoms and make better decisions — when to go for screening, when to go for diagnosis,” he explains.

At the same time, Hollander admits to frustration with the current state of reimbursement, believing that a disconnect exists between the amount consumers and payers value Philips’ sleep and respiratory products.

“There are so many opportunities to make products not only clinically efficacious and validated, but also to make them fit better in patients’ lifestyles. But nobody’s really willing to pay for that within the current reimbursement system,” he says.

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However, Hollander believes this problem “will be solved over time” and heads into the middle of 2017 focused on the one grand ambition that sits atop his slate: to establish Philips as the leading brand in sleep. While he’s cagey about specific plans, he notes the company’s current portfolio “is centered around dealing with sleep apnea as a disease, even though we all know that sleeping is multifactorial. That’s something we’re going to address. We’re going to work to make good sleep possible for everyone.”