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New marketplace, same old advertising?

In today's radically transformed environment, advertising appears to have changed surprisingly little. So how in touch is it with new audience and media needs?

Mike YoungWe don't need reminding how much the healthcare marketplace has changed, and still is changing. The rise of the buyer, the growth of trans-national marketing and increased use of new media, particularly digital, are just three of the many shifts that have transformed what, in retrospect, looks like a model of marketplace stability.

Yet, despite all these changes, some things still look very familiar. One of these is advertising, particularly when viewed with a glass in hand through the lens of the annual PM Society Awards. Plus Áa change, plus c'est la mÍme chose! With this in mind and in case we all succumb to a severe case of marketing myopia, perhaps it is time to take a fresh look at the timeless staple we call advertising.

A key point is that advertising is not homogeneous: different styles reflect different beliefs on how advertising works. In healthcare, there are at least three different styles, which we might call product-centric, advertising-centric and customer-centric.

Product-centric advertising has its origin in the ideas of Rosser Reeves and the concept of a unique sales proposition. It is highly product-focused and not surprisingly, in a traditionally sales-led industry like pharma, such advertising is very popular. It involves finding a rational differentiator from the competition and then getting the customer to buy into it. Unfortunately, life isn't that simple. Customers have minds of their own and often screen out the message. The advertiserís response is to shout louder, demand more impact and to get more into customersí faces. Where the differentiator has little or no value to the customer, flogging dead horses comes to mind!

Advertising-centric advertising is premised by the idea that the ad is 'consumed' by the customer and that advertising itself creates the difference between similar products. Pure creativity is the essence of this approach and it is much loved by the advertising awards industry. At best, it can be brilliant and clearly effective; at worst, it can be totally self-indulgent, simply a platform for creative arrogance.

Customer-centric advertising puts neither the product nor the creative idea to the fore. Instead, the mind of the customer occupies centre stage. The approach flows from recognition that whereas products are made in factories, brands are created in customers' minds. The term 'brand' referring to the mental associations that arise from all the encounters customers have with a product. The question asked of this kind of advertising is always the same: What will it do for the brand? Its greatest strength is that it forces us to understand the rational and emotional needs and beliefs that drive customer behaviour. This has, of course, always been important but never more important than today.

It is not good enough to say, as people often do, that buyers are driven by price, that customers across Europe are broadly the same or that new media work in the same way as old media. Such shallow thinking may appear to make life easier but it will almost certainly be ineffective. For too long, we have talked about putting customers first without really doing it. The type of advertising we applaud is like a mirror reflecting our inner mindset. We talk about a new marketplace but doesnít the same old advertising betray our lack of true engagement with the challenges we face?

Mike Young is chairman of Brand(x)
He can be contacted at or on +44 (0)20 8987 6700

Innovative Thinkers in healthcare advertising - a special supplement from PMGroup Ltd

23rd July 2008


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