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Free thinking

Pharma is a traditionally conservative marketplace where brands adhere to very similar manifestos. Isn't it time for a more liberal approach to pharmaceutical marketing?

Isn't it time for a more liberal approach to pharmaceutical marketing?

Pharmaceuticals is a traditionally conservative marketplace where, when faced with a limited number of product attributes, brands adhere to very similar manifestos. While products wrestle to occupy the different territories available to them in their therapy area, drug brands are all keen to share similar basic essences. Words such as 'trustworthy' and 'confident' are banded around boardrooms by marketers keen to imbue their brand with reassuring properties.

But what do the customers think? Are they reassured or just plain bored? Isn't it time for a more liberal approach to pharmaceutical marketing?

Hall & Partners Healthcare works to a 'Persuasion, Salience and Involvement' model when researching communication strategies. Persuasion (the rational motivation based on the product's clinical features) and involvement (the emotional engagement) carry a great degree of weight, but in an increasingly crowded marketplace it is hard to make your brand stand out with these strategies.

Salience or differentiation, which involves the reappraisal of the brand relationship by employing advertising that stands out, is woefully neglected in drug campaigns and could be the key to really getting a brand noticed.

The personal touch

Consumer advertising can be enjoyable, enlightening and engrained in society, with some ads becoming national treasures or reaching iconic status. However, this is not the case with pharmaceutical advertising. Marketers cannot do much about the fact that, on a professional level, advertising is greeted quite cynically by physicians. However, can marketers make pharmaceutical advertising more challenging, funny, exciting and give it that fairly elusive personal appeal?

The consumer world shows just how creative and challenging marketing can be. Even traditionally temperate sectors such as banking and finance have seen a trend towards modernity and humour. Look at Egg, Goldfish and Halifax. What is important about these brands is that their identities still reflect their customers' needs.

Egg manages to be colourful with a youthful vibe, while still maintaining a sense of integrity and trustworthiness that is crucial for a bank. The Halifax campaign with the inclusion of real-life employees achieved real stand-out and memorability, yet the wackiness of the execution does not detract from the feelings that Halifax cares and is there for its customers.

There is no reason why pharmaceutical companies cannot follow suit. Although doctors may not be looking for a wacky warfarin or a laddish hypolipidaemic, it is not impossible to dovetail a traditional brand essence with a more adventurous execution.

Lead by example

Take the example of Flomax. The ad could be knocked in a number of ways - there's little finesse to the execution, it doesn't suggest any unique product benefits to differentiate Flomax from other benign prostatic hyperplasia treatments. However, it has been well recognised by clients and customers as `a good ad' for being direct and light-hearted. It's a perfect example of how the ever-so-slightly-naughty approach can work just as well as the empathetic.

Risperdal, which swept the board at this year's PM Society Awards with its visually-haunting campaign, demonstrates the potential of salient strategies. Mike Paling, managing director of Paling Walters, believes that although salient strategies are something of a rarity in pharmaceutical advertising, they're not unknown.

Risperdal - which has achieved real brand stand-out, not just from its competitors - and our own campaign for Roche's Xenical are two examples of salience in practice, he says. They show the high level of importance of salience in achieving brand connection.

Making the cut

For a creative reading this, the obvious response is to feel that a large number of salient ads are produced but then weeded out during the research process because they lack mass appeal. This is a difficult argument to counter and does pose a challenge. At what point should a brand manager choose to ditch the inoffensive concept that tested well in favour of the more shocking one which could be misunderstood or deemed inappropriate?

There is no simple answer to this question, but a good research agency should provide feedback not just on which ads worked or didn't work, but crucially in what way the communication acted to achieve the response. They will then be able to provide informative guidance on future campaign direction rather than the results of a simple 'thermometer test' to gauge warmth of response.

Equally important is a discrete phase of positioning research. As John Wilson, planning director at Paling Walter, says: With timelines on projects diminishing, marketers can be tempted to overlook vital stages of the brand planning process, such as proper positioning research, and it can be frustrating to see ads rejected based on some negative feedback when the vital part - the messages behind the idea - have not been fully explored by the team involved.

Marketers shouldn't be afraid to use humour, shock tactics or something a bit different to really make their brand stand out, as the benefits of taking a few risks can be huge. What's the worst that can happen when the target audience sees your advertising - they actually start talking about your brand?

The Author
Anna Williams is an account manager at Hall & Partners Healthcare

2nd September 2008

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