While all companies are adapting to the COVID-19 pandemic with new ways of protecting their employees, customer relationships and core brand businesses, the particulars of each business sector’s “new normal” are going to vary. For pharma and healthcare marketers, the differences with other types of businesses can seem striking and require a unique set of considerations.

This is because there are differences related to the types of products involved and the sales and distribution systems. Then there’s the complex health delivery ecosystem that includes not just brands and consumers, but also HCPs of all types, medical technicians, hospitals, pharmacies, insurance companies and others.

Moreover, selling and marketing health-related products and services when the world crisis is very literally a public health one requires new sensitivities. Messaging techniques that might have been effective before the pandemic might risk sounding tone-deaf when the world is fearful and on edge.

As we look at this dramatically changed cultural and marketing landscape, we’ve identified three key approaches to take in order to help businesses and brands to navigate these anxious times. While the current situation is likely to be temporary (although who knows for how long), the three principles that we’re advocating build on the core best practices already developed by healthcare brands.

1. Responsibility

In times like these, it is especially important to be a good corporate citizen and prioritize the health and safety of individuals and societal concerns. It entails the recognition that the pathway to growth requires maintaining public goodwill and avoiding marketing and messaging practices that might seem to be exploiting people’s fears – or even just adding to the information clutter. It’s a call to preserve brand growth by not squandering trust through insensitivity.

The downside risk of even inadvertently conveying to customers that you’re trying to take advantage of the current situation is enormous. That said, during times of adversity there is an opportunity to build credibility by conveying truthful and relevant information and reinforcing one’s position as a trusted health authority.

It’s an occasion for a value-system check. This doesn’t require a different approach as much as it does an extension and sharpening of existing best practices to conform to the currently unusual circumstances—in other words, knowing your brand’s purpose, creating work that helps the brand play a meaningful role in people’s lives and being true to the core ethos of your company.

In fact, the skills and perspectives of brand communications are of wider value during this pandemic.

2. Adaptability

Right now, the health system is under stress with questions about whether, if pressed, it will be able to handle more capacity. Therefore, it is imperative not to tax the physical health system unless absolutely necessary. Unless the goal is to provide additional support to the health system, alternative marketing and distribution approaches should be explored. Whereas a marketer might usually build awareness and demand by driving consumers to the pharmacy or the doctor’s office, more thought has to be given in the current environment to where you’re driving demand – and to which health professionals.

So as to not overburden the health delivery system, there may be opportunities to expand the role of the pharmacy in primary care – to have it play an increasing role in health management, whether through triage, ailment management or keeping patients within a loose network of medical monitoring. This is a trend that has already been underway and could evolve going forward to help relieve the burden of chronic disease treatment. 

The healthcare field has already begun moving into new forms of technology-based communications (e.g., telemedicine). In fact, over the last three years we have seen an explosion in China in this type of social platform health delivery. Given its efficiency and effectiveness value in both education and promotion, it was just a matter of time before it rapidly went global as an answer to burgeoning health costs and in providing efficient convenient access for patients. Because of the COVID-19 tsunami, this rate of adoption has been dramatically accelerated.

We are also advocating for what we are calling precision learning. It’s part of a recognition that we really need to streamline information to healthcare professions in modules that they can put into action quickly, thus supporting more learning in less time.

Medical congresses are clearly being impacted right now, but they won’t totally disappear in the long term. There is too much value that professionals find in meeting, debating and just relating to each other. Still, physical meetings are likely to be augmented by wider uptake and acceptance of virtual meetings. Similarly, face-to-face selling will no doubt return once the current situation passes, but with hyper-targeting and augmented by highly customized virtual engagements.

3. Authenticity

Time and again, the lesson of crisis communications has been that the most effective approach in both the short- and long-term is straightforwardness and transparency. Good practices involve providing clarity and solace regarding the availability and delivery of your products and services, and keeping open lines of communications to answer questions about medicine, services, continuity of supply of medicine and quality control.

During the COVID-19 crisis, there is more opportunity than ever before for pharma and healthcare marketers to become a beacon of information. This allows them to not only help customers clarify what is happening, but to present them with flexible options that recognize solutions to the confusion they might be experiencing.

While there will eventually be a return to familiar practices, the current situation is functioning as a test laboratory of sorts, generating innovations that are likely to find a place in the marketing mix down the road. For example, it certainly seems likely that the massive pivot to digital, online and social media messaging will have a lasting influence on all brand communications going forward. The current shift towards customization also seems like a trend that will continue.

By focusing on responsibility, adaptability and authenticity, pharma and healthcare marketers can emerge from this crisis as stronger marketers. This challenging period can in fact turn into an opportunity to earn more trust in the minds of doctors and patients, and within the health system overall.

John Cahill is global CEO of McCann Health