With their demands for an unprecedented level of transparency and authenticity, today’s young adults are poised to prompt major shifts in pharma marketing. This group, comprised of the oldest members of Gen Z (now 25) and the youngest millennials, share an expectation of personalization, honesty from the brands they support and a trust in social media.

Their values and the way they consume and seek information are radically different from their Gen X parents and boomer grandparents. “Gen Zers really want to get at the root of what is being put in their body, while their parents just want someone who is going to give them really good meds and take care of their condition,” notes Heartbeat strategy director Jodi Reimer.

However, many medications — from treatments for asthma to obesity to low testosterone and even birth control — are relevant across age groups. So when it comes to messaging for medications and devices, how can medical marketers reach across these generational divides to capture both audiences? And can approaching multiple age groups simultaneously be an effective strategy?

In many respects, Gen Z is an unprecedented cohort: Its members are more racially and ethnically diverse than any previous generation, as well as more educated. They’re also the most digitally native, never having lived in a world without the internet. Most have never even experienced a world without smartphones.

Highly adaptable to our changing world, they embrace multifaceted identities. “They don’t just identify as Black; they’re not just a woman,” Reimer explains. “Embracing the way they want to unify across so many aspects of their lives is important for how we approach them from a medical marketing perspective.”

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These individuals are also active across many channels, often simultaneously. For instance, they might be sitting in their doctors’ waiting room while looking on Snapchat for people who have experienced a similar condition or tried the same drug.

“Successful brands embrace that fluidity. It’s about allowing your target audience to experience the brand where they’re experiencing life,” Reimer adds.

But unlike their parents and grandparents, today’s young adults place a lot of trust in social media when it comes to healthcare. They tend to seek information via crowdsourcing, explains GSW executive creative director Sam Cannizzaro.

“Boomers are looking to the physician and following that physician’s orders,” he notes. “Gen X places more trust in family and close friends, not necessarily online.”

In order to meet young adults where they are, Cannizzaro emphasizes “supporting their crowdsourcing appetite” and building trust by providing “credible content,” such as patient stories that can be shared in virtual social circles. 

According to research from Mind+Matter U.K., 29% of members of Gen Z — often dubbed “Zoomers” — visit social media for health inspiration, compared to 4% of baby boomers. Corrina Safeio, Mind+Matter U.K.’s managing director, emphasizes the importance of pursuing multiple channels to reach Gen Z in the digital realm.

“Marketers must ensure they adopt a segmented digital channel strategy to provide the right answers to the questions being asked, when and where they’re being asked,” she says.

By way of example, Safeio points to The Smear Word, a successful cervical screening awareness campaign for Roche. Targeting 25- to 29-year-olds, the campaign used wit and self-deprecating humor to encourage audiences to get tested. Its missives were shared via social channels by a dedicated account, rather than the pharma company’s corporate handle.

Roche ran paid media across Instagram, Spotify, Facebook and Google’s Display Network. It also partnered with influencers to create organic content that sparked discussions in the online communities “where our insights told us our audience hangs out,” Safeio adds. 

Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic has shaped these generational behaviors. According to Safeio’s research, while earning the trust of young adults has been difficult in the era of fake news and other digital misinformation, thanks to the COVID vaccines, “trust in pharma and the healthcare sector generally has never been higher.” Indeed, she sees this moment as a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build on this trust and engage young adults.”

For her part, Reimer says she has noticed Zoomers increasingly turning to influencers, or “like-minded people with whom they could see themselves having some kind of relationship.” And while being online-first is an obvious defining characteristic of today’s young adults, Cannizzaro notes the pandemic has forced boomers and Gen X to more frequently turn to digital channels for information.

To that point, he says they have “embraced FaceTime and video conferencing more than ever, because they were already face-to-face engagers.” He also notes that boomers are susceptible to influencers, though of a different stripe.

“Whether that influencer is in an online social circle for the Gen Zers or the millennials, or even a Dr. Oz who can engage our older audiences through traditional TV and radio, we’ve had a lot of success leveraging influencers to raise awareness for a product or a disease,” Cannizzaro says.

Which brings us back to the original question: Can marketers create campaigns that resonate across groups with such different preferences and values? At Heartbeat, Reimer and her team are exploring how they can leverage existing intergenerational connections for a campaign for a low testosterone medication. This condition is common in men older than 60, but can also occur in men in their 30s — though it’s much lesser known among that age group.

“We ended up with a strategy that was really centered around the handoff of information from the father, or that older boomer, to his son, who was naive about what he might be experiencing,” she explains.

The primary strategy targets men aged 50 and older, introducing “new” media channels such as Reddit and leveraging influencers on Facebook. “Men with low testosterone can also be fathers, which opened up new avenues for content and media channels,” Reimer continues. “As soon as you target that very real connection point, then you have something both audiences can relate to.”

Reimer also references marketing around birth control as a potential place for intergenerational connectivity. Clearly marketers would address an 18-year-old very differently than a 30-something who already has a child — but those two individuals might be colleagues or sisters.

“It’s a wide age group, but they still have this connection point that we can latch onto from a strategic perspective,” she notes.

In an age of highly advanced segmentation capabilities, though, many marketing experts don’t see the value of trying to develop campaigns with multigenerational appeal, or even think about “young adults” as a monolith. “Today’s youth are more connected than ever before, but, at the same time, they live in their own digital bubble and will only respond to the content that chimes with their personal identity and purpose,” Safeio stresses.

In addition to qualitative and quantitative research, she touts Mind+Matter’s use of a proprietary AI data system, Gravity, which automates HCP consumer and patient communications to ensure that the right messages are reaching the right groups through the right channels (such as “20-year-olds searching for health advice on Instagram”).

Cannizzaro points out that, especially in light of the pandemic, clients are looking to maximize their marketing dollars through more precise targeting. “When you look at going too broad, there’s some waste involved,” he says. “The way I would message and relate to a 65-year-old is very different from a 25-year-old. The look and feel, the tonality, the call-to-action — for instance, whether we ask them to call a phone number or visit a URL or scan a QR code.”

Whether medical marketers are specifically targeting young adults or marketing a drug to young adults, their parents and grandparents simultaneously, in order to resonate they are going to have to communicate brand values in a way that feels genuine. They also need to provide the level of transparency young adults expect from the companies they patronize.

According to the Mind+Matter research, 51% of Zoomers agree that pharma companies have an obligation to promote healthy living. “Consistently, older Gen Zers and younger millennials are seeking out brands that are purposeful — and, most importantly, are acting with integrity and substance,” Safeio says. “In healthcare, this means meaningful brand work above the product is no longer a nice-to-have; it’s an absolute essential.”

As Reimer puts it: “It’s very difficult to engage with an audience who only wants to hear from their peers or from like-minded brands, especially when it comes to pharma.”

She adds that Gen Zers want to understand the company behind the name. “What is it that makes Johnson & Johnson care so much about its patients? How active are is it on social? How engaged is it with its internal and external communities?” she says. “This is an opportunity to allow the audience to take a peek at who you are, within your comfort zone.”