It should be a no-brainer. To mitigate health inequities that continue to plague the country, pharma marketers must invest in multiculturalism and target diverse communities. In the process, they’ll not only reap financial benefits but also earn plaudits for doing the right thing. Win/win scenarios don’t come much cleaner.

But is it really that simple? And are companies finding success with this approach?

Julia Kim, VP of business development at TelevisaUnivision, notes the obvious: The pandemic shone a harsh light on the health disparities that affect Black and brown communities more acutely.

“That was a wakeup call to the pharma industry,” she says. “It told them they need to do more to reach those communities and have their messages resonate — not just advertising to them, but also speaking to them in-language and in-culture.”

Indeed, the desire to speak in-culture has inspired many smart and creative initiatives, such as the Inclusive Point of Care Network launched in April by Publicis Health Media. Such programs are long overdue, according to Karima Sharif, PHM’s head of inclusive investments and strategic partnerships.

“We’re saying point of care has to change based on cultural relevancies and diverse populations,” she explains. “We need to meet patients where they are, instead of trying to push them into a doctor’s office.”

Sharif explains that, in predominantly Black and brown communities, barbershops and beauty salons are often considered more trusted locations than traditional healthcare settings. “I have family members who are beauticians and I’ve seen them ask their older clients, ‘Hey, did you take your medication today?’ They become like an extended caregiver.”

Through the Inclusive POC Network, PHM is partnering with Live Chair Health, which describes its mission as “harnessing the power of human connection to close the life expectancy gap of African Americans one barbershop at a time.” This could eventually even include having barbers administer blood-pressure checks and the like.

Lili Gil Valletta, founder and CEO of cultural intelligence shop Cien+, also believes in the power of changing the messenger. She challenges marketers to reimagine the individuals and organizations that deliver patient education.

“It may be churches and community leaders — and that scares pharma. They’ll say, ‘What, I’m gonna be working with something like the association of Baptist churches?’ But they come to realize that changing the messenger can mean greater effectiveness, higher levels of trust and more power in creating referrals or screenings or better outcomes.”

Valletta has observed the invigoration that often results when marketers of stagnant mature brands shift spend to patient segments with which they hadn’t previously engaged.

“It happens with categories where there’s an over-indexing of cases with diverse patients — diabetes, heart failure, HIV. Marketers will suddenly realize that, say, 50% of diabetes cases in Texas are in Hispanic people but they haven’t spent one penny to hyper-focus on that segment. Then it’s, ‘How about we double down on that segment?’ And boom, the ROI kicks in.”

No stranger to big pharma — she spent 10 years at Johnson & Johnson — Valletta believes the industry is wholly capable of simultaneously delivering societal impact and business growth.

“We happen to be in an industry that impacts and hopefully saves lives. There’s been a misunderstanding that working on diverse initiatives was an altruistic project, but in fact it’s good for business, too,” she continues. “People in healthcare shouldn’t be afraid of delivering what’s both good for society and good for the bottom line. And when you do those in tandem, it becomes sustainable.”

Meanwhile, companies finally seem to understand that they can’t effectively reach diverse populations without diverse talent under their roofs. Courtney Murphy, global people director at Ogilvy Health, notes this requires focusing sourcing strategies on attracting diverse talent as well as fostering a work environment where those employees feel included and supported. By way of example, Ogilvy Health’s leadership program, Elevate, aims to empower Black women leaders in the organization via sponsorship, coaching and a rigorous eight-week development program.

TelevisaUnivision’s mission is to entertain and educate the Hispanic community, and nearly 77% of its workforce is comprised of members of minority communities — but they’re not all Hispanic. Kim points out that she is Asian and colleague Orlando Reece is Black and previously served as CEO of Pride Media.

“Here we have not just diversity of race, but also diversity of skill sets and background, and those different perspectives make things stronger,” she says.

For her part, Sharif notes that PHM’s mentorship program pulls from a range of diverse and marginalized communities: “We just hired four Black and brown entry-level employees who are getting their start in advertising and marketing, and we partner with organizations such as Year Up and the Boyd Initiative.” Both groups count as their mission helping underprivileged young adults join the workforce in meaningful careers.

For organizations that truly want to get multicultural marketing down pat, retraining pharma sales forces is a necessity. “It can’t be the same old pitch as before,” Valletta says. “They need to show up with empathy, knowing that social determinants and health equity factors are impacting the customers they’re talking to.”

Nor can marketing materials remain unchanged. Sharif references an October 2021 Forbes article by multicultural expert Isaac Mizrahi (not, it should be noted, the fashion designer), which claims industry studies “estimate that the ROI for brands who understand multicultural marketing drivers could be up to 30% to 40% higher” than for brands that simply translate a
general-market ad into another language.

Then there’s the danger that comes with following trends. This year in particular there was considerable pushback against so-called rainbow activism — that is, companies adding rainbow colors to their logos during Pride Month. The same misstep can occur with multicultural marketing: A randomly appointed month of “support” won’t cut it. Companies need to act — and react — year-round.

“It depends upon who’s leading the effort,” says Valletta. “You may get some steam for a corporate reputation PR stunt, but it’s short-lived. People are more sophisticated in this digital era.” 

A recent study done by Cien+ and its data science partner Culturintel examined reactions to rainbow activism. “We found that one out of every three online conversations about brand messaging during Pride Month is negative, and the main reason people disapprove is that they feel the message lacks sincerity or is disingenuous,” Valletta adds.

Ignoring diversity can have consequences well beyond disapproval. For example, Valletta notes Moderna could have brought the first COVID vaccine to market, “but the FDA told [the company it] had to adjust its clinical trial because it didn’t have enough diverse participants. Whoops, Pfizer got there first!”

Similarly, she describes how the first COVID vaccines were presented to the public as simply “safe and effective.” But when Cien+ analyzed the barriers to vaccination for Hispanics, cost was one of the top three; that the vaccines were available free of charge hadn’t been heard. Once Cien+ published its finding, references to COVID vaccination began stressing that it is free, safe and effective.

In the end, the organizations that succeed will be the ones that pay as much attention to ROE — return on equity, empathy and/or engagement — as they do ROI.

“You’ll have a hard time hitting your numbers if you’re not being inclusive of diverse patients,” Valletta says. “That’s the capitalistic view, but you can also think of it this way: If I don’t do it, I’m leaving lives behind and giving up on preventing the preventable.”