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Curb your conservatism: can pharma ditch its cautious approach to creativity in comms?

Chris Ross explores innovation in healthcare comms and finds creativity shouldn’t be comfortable

Anyone that’s ever watched the Curb Your Enthusiasm episode ‘Beloved Aunt’ will know that the show’s central character – and creator – Larry David is no shrinking violet when it comes to confronting social taboos. So an off-screen confession he made back in 2009 may surprise you. Speaking at a press launch for the Woody Allen movie ‘Whatever Works’, David admitted: “I don’t like to be out of my comfort zone, which is about half an inch wide.” The same philosophy could easily apply to the pharma industry, whose creative comfort zone has historically been so narrow it makes Larry’s half an inch seem like a schoolboy boast.

Let’s face it, we’re all Larry. We’ve all got familiar routines and behaviours that give us a sense of mental security; a safe space from which we seldom choose to stray. We know we might be missing out, but our general default is ‘why take the risk’?

When it comes to pharma marketing, the industry’s ultra-conservative approach to creative communications is, at best, counter-productive – and it’s rapidly becoming outdated in a fast-changing world.

But the worm, it seems, is turning. In recent months, pharma’s comfort zone has – through sheer necessity – expanded. COVID-19 has forced the industry to push the boundaries of creative communications, or risk paying the price for old-fashioned models of engagement.

So how’s it doing? We’ll explore that shortly. But first let’s turn back the clock to a life pre-pandemic and remind ourselves how pharma’s creativity was faring before COVID-19 came to town. In 2018, hot on the heels of pharma creative missing out on a Grand Prix at Cannes for the second successive year, the Healthcare Communications Association (HCA), in partnership with 90TEN, launched ‘Cannes or Canned?’ – an initiative to increase creativity and innovation in healthcare and scientific communications.

The initiative, led by senior communicators from seven pharmaceutical companies, set out to establish what was holding back creativity within the industry and identify the things that could open up its potential. Its conclusions were outlined in a 2019 report that issued a stern warning and a passionate rallying call: ‘The pharmaceutical industry is fuelled by discovery and innovation but, unless we start enabling that innovation to reach our communications, our relevance could ebb away…. The industry is a powerhouse of progress fuelled by a passion for exploring possibilities in the quest to find new solutions. We believe that spirit of innovation can and must run through our communications too.’

The report said that healthcare communicators must stop using regulations as an excuse for shying away from innovation. Instead, it highlighted four common factors stifling progress, citing an industry that:

  • Doesn’t understand what its audiences want
  • Doesn’t support its people with the right skills
  • Over-complicates everything
  • Fears failure and is risk-averse.

It concluded with five recommendations to ‘open up the can of creativity and innovation’:

1. Create a culture that embraces innovation and creativity

2. Empower and value brave, innovative people from within and beyond healthcare

3. Strip back processes and streamline activities to enable agile and responsive comms

4. Get ‘up close and personal’ with stakeholders and audiences

5. Put experimentation and learning at the heart of healthcare comms.

The ‘Cannes or Canned?’ initiative provided a useful barometer and blueprint for creativity in healthcare. On the face of it, COVID-19 may have disrupted the movement’s momentum – although it inadvertently accelerated the mindset shift recommended by the report. In fact, those recommendations remain relevant – and essential – today. The pandemic has only sharpened the need.

Post-pandemic progress

So how is pharma progressing? Unsurprisingly the past 18 months has seen gargantuan change. Companies are exploring new ways of thinking and communicating – and it’s driving increased appreciation of the value of creativity.

“The pandemic has actioned pharma companies to work in ways that creative agencies have been advocating for years,” said Rob Gale, creative director, Ashfield MedComms. “On the commercial side, they’re starting to rely on some of the mechanisms successfully adopted in consumer. And on the medcomms side – where conveying complex scientific information appropriately but creatively can be challenging – they’re becoming braver in their attempts to make communications cut through. Part of that bravery is having the courage not to say everything. It’s about delivering concise messages that resonate. Often, the things that resonate aren’t scientific, they’re human.

“Today’s communications can’t just focus on the science or the data – you’ve got to win hearts and minds too. You’ve got to communicate the science through the right channels in ways that engage target audiences and give them that positive experience.”

James Mayfield, creative director, Purple Agency, agrees, believing that human connection is essential if creative is going to change behaviour. “People don’t engage with advertising, marketing or even an idea unless they’re interested. They have to see something in a communication that’s appealing to them – practically, emotionally or better still both,” he said. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re a healthcare professional (HCP) reading scientific information or a person on the street looking at a billboard, if what you see flickers an interest, it’s going to take you on a journey.

“In pharma, we’ve got focused and niche audiences that we need to properly understand if we’re going to work out how to flick the switch and get them excited. To do that, we need to have deep conversations with them and get them talking excitedly about what they believe and understand. Those conversations will illuminate the scientific attributes that excite them as subject experts, but they’ll also uncover the emotive aspects that draw them in and trigger their behaviour. Being creative is about joining the dots. It’s about connecting the practical and the emotional in ways that capture the imagination and inspire new behaviours. Clients never say ‘I want a really creative campaign’. Why should they? That’s not their goal. What they want is to effect change. They do that by engaging customers in meaningful, practical and emotional ways. Creativity is the vehicle that drives them there.”

The vehicle metaphor is a good one, with pharma’s willingness to embrace creativity gathering speed in recent months. “COVID-19 has transformed how we approach medcomms,” said Rob Gale. “The world’s moved on from the traditional ways of exchanging information like fixed-date conferences and international symposia. Nowadays, we can’t just wait for our two days in Chicago, we’re connecting with customers on a daily basis – and it’s forcing us to explore creative new ways of telling our story to gain traction with our audience. Communicating the science has gone from penny-farthing to speedway bike in a matter of months, where we’ve previously been happy to trundle along on a perambulator! The shift is forcing us to be more creative.”

Socially distanced
Critics claim that the industry hasn’t valued creativity enough in the past – preferring to rely on tried and tested forms of communication rather than do anything wildly different. This was certainly the case with social media, where pharma has taken its time to settle into the channel. Things are changing, but there’s still a long way to go.

“Today, companies are much more comfortable using social media – but many are yet to make the most of the creative opportunity,” said Rick Evans, social strategy director, communications, 90TEN. “Companies often have very rigid guidelines about what posts look like – and that sometimes results in dry, corporate-looking content that doesn’t differentiate. Pharma can forget that when audiences look through their social feeds, its content is surrounded by thumb-stopping material from other industries, family and friends. It has to stand out in that environment. It needs to look good alongside consumer brands and videos of cute cats. It’s challenging, but safe content won’t cut through.”

According to Rick, the biggest creative opportunity in social right now is video content. “It generally performs the best,” he said. “However, pharma’s video content can sometimes be overproduced and corporate. The most effective video campaigns have a DIY feel. They’re less polished and, as a consequence, feel more authentic. It sounds counter-intuitive, but creativity in social is about removing a bit of that sheen.

“Social also provides opportunities to co-create with influencers who understand what resonates with niche audiences. And better still, it’s a great testing ground for creativity where learnings can be applied across all your communications activities. With social campaigns it’s easy to test a variety of creative options; different copy, language, tone or message. Very quickly – and on a very small scale – we can get fantastic insights about our audiences and use them to inform the wider comms strategy. Social is a great gateway to test and learn.”

The insight story
As ever, insight and strategy is paramount. “That’s where we can support our creativity,” said Rob Gale. “Part of being a good creative is being a problem-solver. To do that, you’ve got to go mining for a nugget – and sometimes it can come from the strangest place. My two-year-old daughter has taught me that we should always ask why. And we should keep on asking why until the question can no longer be answered. She’s right. Creative solutions come from fanatical curiosity. And the answers that trigger those solutions are always human. Data is great and can lead us to solutions, but creative that changes behaviours will always have that human connection.”

The need for robust customer insight is well understood but its importance cannot be overstated if pharma is to move from being risk-averse to embracing creativity. “Sometimes, when you’re trying to get to a creative point, it’s a little bit of a leap of faith. So you have to take the leap with substantiating facts to help ground you,” said James Mayfield. “If your insights aren’t solid, it’s likely to be a dangerous leap – and clients will be reluctant to take it. But if your substantiating facts are solid, it’s much easier to be brave and jump into the creative space. That’s where all the strategic work done up front pays off – giving agencies the platform to develop creative concepts. It frees us to go off and come up with weird and wonderful ways of articulating a challenge, problem or opportunity. That’s where the magic happens – that intersection where strategy, insight and creativity come together to solve a problem. It’s why partnership between client and agency is so important.”

Rick Evans agrees, believing trusted collaboration and bravery are key to creativity. “There’s always a cultural tension between the medical and commercial sides of pharma businesses – and then creative agencies come in and further challenge that dynamic. That’s our job. When everyone pulls together and is prepared to make brave decisions, that’s when the magic really happens. One of the biggest issues is the ‘too many cooks’ situation that can happen when so many different parties are involved. Bravery there relies on understanding the end user. When I’ve worked on projects where great creative ideas have overcome internal resistance, it’s normally because we’ve been able to demonstrate that our approach will resonate with the audience and have the desired effect. People generally find it hard to argue with strong insight.”

The need for speed...
The Cannes or Canned? report highlighted the need for streamlined processes and greater agility in pharma. In a post-pandemic, omnichannel world this has never been more important – particularly when it comes to regulatory processes that have commonly held up progress. “We need to be quicker,” said Rob Gale. “In the past, regulation has been the stick that creatives have been beaten with – and businesses can sometimes kill creative ideas before they even get to regulatory. But if we want to stand out, we need to use our knowledge of modern audiences to show regulatory why it’s good for us to communicate in a particular way. And if it’s not dangerous and not going to break any rules, we need to move on and do it – rather than filling in forms, sending them off and waiting for the inevitable. Consumer leaders are nimble. We have to be nimble too.”

...and the need for need
Another essential requirement will be a shift in mindset from brand-led to patient-centred. The approach is much claimed among pharma companies, but old habits die hard and many brand campaigns still default to the comfort zone of product feature and benefits. This needs to change, with understanding the needs of patients being an important catalyst for creativity. “Product benefits are always going to be a feature of creative campaigns – but ultimately, patient need is key,” said James Mayfield. “If you can illustrate – and bring to life for your audience – a need that’s out there, your campaign is always going to appeal. The most successful creative campaigns effect meaningful change – and they do so by engaging in an emotional benefit for the person looking at it. It’s a simple human connection that drives interaction and triggers change. That’s the power of creativity.”

If human connection is the flame of creativity, where can pharma look to find examples of creative brands that resonate with – and inspire – their intended target audience? The obvious answer is FMCG but the reality is much more rewarding: there are plenty of inspiring campaigns right here in health. One good example is CoppaFeel, the public health campaign for breast cancer. “Pharma can learn a lot from CoppaFeel,” said Rick Evans. “The brand is fantastically creative; the name, the iconography, the language and the tone is perfectly matched with its target audience. It’s very millennial. The way it talks about cancer isn’t scary – it’s lively, vibrant and accessible. And it’s tonally very different from the major cancer charities which can feel more corporate, dry and serious. CoppaFeel is a brilliant example of a creatively driven initiative that’s tailor-made for its intended audience. Everything they do has this youth-focused messaging, but it never loses sight of its purpose. It’s really creative – and it connects.”

Campaigns like CoppaFeel should give encouragement to pharma that, as audiences, attitudes and behaviours adapt to an evolving world, there’s no need to stay in the comfort zone of safe and stuffy health communications. Rob Gale agrees: “Pharma needs to trust in the process and trust the power of creativity. Because healthcare doesn’t have to be boring. If we work together and play to our strengths, we can make it interesting, make it creative and, best of all, make a difference.”

Embracing the c-word
And so we return to the beginning and the need to veer out of our comfort zone. In the Curb classic, Beloved Aunt, an unfortunate typo in a newspaper obituary lands hapless Larry in the hottest of water. The episode, first broadcast over twenty years ago, brazenly (and excruciatingly) finds humour in a controversial expletive still considered a taboo today. Perhaps pharma can learn a lot from Larry – because it too has a c-word that it shouldn’t shy away from: creativity. If you want to make human connections that drive meaningful change, it’s time to curb your conservatism.

Article by
Chris Ross

8th October 2021

Article by
Chris Ross

8th October 2021

From: Healthcare

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