Pharma’s commercial tactics, and the results stemming from them, are looking a lot different these days. Take the process of gathering patient stories, for one.

Prior to COVID, this was done by dispatching a film crew to the patient’s home or an agreed-upon studio and spending a day filming. But what to do if the patient is immunocompromised due to a potentially fatal genetic condition, or simply can’t travel due to a lockdown? Amidst a pandemic that shows little sign of slowing, pharma’s content creators are finding less onerous – and safer – ways for patients and their families to open up about their experiences and to offer tips and emotional support to others grappling with similar cases.

“We’ve had to find a way to still be able to share these really important insights and experiences,” said Amanda Phraner, director, PR and social media for one of these companies, Horizon Therapeutics. Horizon, which focuses on rare diseases, replaced its slickly produced patient vignettes with a more budget-friendly alternative: Collecting the stories through Zoom calls. 

It’s but one of the ways industry has been forced to adapt its practices for these extraordinary times. Product launches have gone almost exclusively remote, a far cry from the days when scores of drug reps pounded the pavement vying to speak with doctors. Manufacturers are rethinking how TV drug commercials get produced, too, replacing large video crews and professionally lit, multi-camera shoots with virtual ones, and opting for digital and animated commercials.

“We need to challenge conventional thinking,” urged April Mitchell, VP of neuroscience marketing for Otsuka, in her keynote address at MM+M’s recent Transform virtual event. “Organizations are doing virtual TV shoots right now. We just completed one.” 

Not surprisingly, the results look different as well. Goodbye, idyllic scenes of cavorting couples or staged interviews on a white, seamless background. Patients are being observed in their own habitats and, at least for now, are in the driver’s seat.

“We’re letting them kind of direct and produce,” said Phraner.

Horizon’s videos aim to capture the challenges endured along the patient journey. For individuals with orphan diseases, who often cycle through many doctors and years of suffering until a diagnosis is reached, those challenges are anything but typical. The footage is shared through the company’s marketing channels, websites and social media pages (or those of third-party advocacy groups).

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Horizon’s 2019 video shoot involving a patient who lives with chronic granulomatous disease, and a 2020 Zoom call with a mother of a child with cystinosis, show its progression from in-person filming to virtual. (Credit: Horizon Therapeutics)

After piloting the Zoom method with one family, Horizon began sending out filming kits. Each kit comes with a ring-shaped light and microphone, both of which plug into a laptop. Before the interview, Phraner walks the participant through the process. 

The ensuing video chat is then edited, and participants return the equipment via a self-addressed envelope. To further bring the story to life, Horizon asks for photos. 

To hear Phraner tell it, Horizon’s transition to a low-maintenance style of filming has been a smooth one. “We embrace the family running around in the background. It’s real life,” she said. “It gets to a point where you’re like, ‘Okay, we don’t want to do 16 takes just to get what we deem as perfect. Let’s just own it. If the six-year-old hops on the mom’s lap in the middle of the call, that’s great. That’s what people want to see. They feel like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s my life, too.’”

This trend extends to corporate photography, where a more human, less clinical, style has taken hold. “Healthcare companies are looking for a less commercial feel and much more in the way of storytelling or lifestyle images that are relatable,” said portrait photographer Karen Haberberg, who specializes in healthcare.

Once shoots returned after a brief pause when coronavirus emerged, Haberberg’s clients requested outdoor settings, dictating use of longer lenses. Then indoor shoots resumed, but with limits on the number of people on set.

The style became more editorial, Haberberg explained, noting that it makes for a “deeper look.” This holds for shoots highlighting a company’s diversity.

L-R: Pre-pandemic patient portrait taken by photographer Karen Haberberg, and photos of frontline workers and families she snapped this year. (Credit: Karen Haberberg)

“In the past, it’s been that one person or professional looking straight at you and giving the message. Now they’re giving it a little bit of a natural, familiar approach,” she added.

Will this new process and less sterile style last? Haberberg has taken a liking to it. 

“No one is using big studios, sets or scenes,” she noted. “Being allowed into people’s world – their homes, environments or office space – is different from bringing them into a studio.”

Although new logistical issues have emerged (“creative used to be your main concern; now there are many others”), it’s a format that many of the people Haberberg photographs are able to relate to, given their state of mind and what’s going on with the pandemic. She also noted that the approach is of a piece with the way pharma, biotech and medical device companies are positioning themselves lately – more as protectors of public health and bastions of science than as marketers of products.

Phraner says that while it’s been nice to step back from her usual production schedule, with its full-day video shoots, she looks forward to returning to in-person, one-on-one conversations with patients. One of the biggest drawbacks to remote filming is the reliance on technology.

“When you’re doing this, you’re relying on connectivity,” she said, “Sometimes that can be frustrating.”

Then there’s the diminished ability to bond. “There is an amazing opportunity to connect with people when you’re there,” Phraner said. “There’s enjoyment in being able to talk to people as you’re setting up the video cameras and the lighting and getting to know them. There’s just such a nice personal connection. You become instant, fast friends. You really get to see who people are.”

That’s not quite possible on a one-hour Zoom call. “You lose a little bit of something when it’s via video,” Phraner lamented. “You still get to make a nice connection, but I do miss being able to really build that with people in person.”

For now, though, video chats appear to be Horizon’s best option. Filming outdoors with masks and social distancing presents its own challenges, like background noise.

“Safety is still at the forefront for us,” Phraner said. “We’re not really in a place where travel is happening, unless it’s absolutely necessary. For our patients, we’re still figuring out how to make remote work the best. I don’t think we’re prepared to be in-person quite yet.”