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Smart Thinking blog

Insights and expert advice on the key issues facing today’s pharma marketer

Effective advertising

How can you develop an attention-grabbing campaign that truly changes perceptions in your favour? The key is to be more radical and competitive in your thinking...

We have a difficult job to do in pharma communication. We are heavily constrained in what we can say (quite rightly of course) and we have only a few static media at our disposal, so maybe it is not surprising that we often end up concentrating more on making our communications accurate, rather than making them persuasive. But this is a mistake. It is precisely because we have a difficult job to do that we need to get better at adding a bit of life and persuasiveness into our communications if they are to be really effective.

Our communications are there for a reason; to tell the audience about the product in a way that makes them want to use it more. When it is created properly, this means a good campaign challenges perceptions, makes people change their minds and their behaviour, and so increases product sales. This kind of campaign is also much more exciting to work on and more likely to enthuse the salesforce.

The more normal approach of just going through the motions of producing a revised sales aid and a couple of mailings or leavepieces is not exciting and won't usually tackle the next hurdle in growing sales.

Doctors are bombarded by messages all day, but because we are promoting to an intelligent audience about their work subject, we think they might be intrinsically interested in what we say. But of course they are not, they are just a little more serious and a little more short of time than consumers are. They still want to be sold to in an interesting way or they won't listen to the message – it is just that they want the message to be succinct and thorough at the same time, which makes it more difficult to create.

Quick checklist to more competitive communications

  1. What motivates your audience?
  2. Agree to be different
  3. Make sure the visual conveys your message
  4. Don't rely on doctors' feedback
  5. Make your message work but keep it short
  6. Involve the reps in the process
  7. Keep a brand essence in all the various executions

In order to be more effective, what we need to do is to think much more competitively in everything we do. We are competing for attention and we need to change our communications to make sure they are fighting for mindspace much harder than many of them do now. There is a golden opportunity to be more interesting than the global wallpaper that dominates pharma communications. Which means all you need to do is think a little harder than your competitors and you can beat them – gain market share just by being more interesting and more competitive in what you say and the way that you say it. 

What is needed most to achieve this is a change in attitude – but it helps if there is a process to slot this into, as long as you regard the process as a means to an end, not something that will magically produce better materials however you run it. So here is both an approach and an attitude to using it which I hope will help anyone who wants their communications to work harder.

1. Know your customersto know your hurdles
The first step in producing a better campaign than your competitors is to know more about what motivates your audiences than they do. There will be good reasons why you aren't selling more – product image, or attitude challenges to overcome – and the role of your campaign each year is to overcome these and change behaviour in your favour. You will be amazed what is possible when you start with an attitude of 'we need to change this' rather than 'these are the key messages so we just need to liven them up'.

Key messages are not necessarily the best place to start to run a campaign because they do not include the audience's attitudes. The key to a campaign is identifying the biggest surmountable hurdle for growth next year and then designing everything you do to overcome this.

So, you need to find out what the biggest hurdle is – but this is not simple. You cannot simply ask doctors why they don't buy more, because like many customers they do not necessarily know why they think and feel the way they do. 

You can use research, but the key is using the right kind of research. What you need is to be able to tell their real preferences in treatment – what they really think of their treatment options and what it will take to change what they do now. There is a new research technique we have discovered called IAT tests which can measure brand preferences subconsciously and this can have a dramatic impact on your brand's communications decisions. 

In some cases, it has shown that doctors claim to be interested in new treatments, but their real feelings are that they do not understand them and so are too nervous to use them. If this is true for your brand, it is vital to find this out, for it will mean that a strategy of reassurance is needed rather than one proclaiming the new brand's technical differences, which may scare them more. 

2. Be different, make a real offer 
Having defined the hurdles you need to clear with this new campaign, the next step is to ensure that your communications say what you need loud and clear. 

Too many pharma ads make the mistake of promoting 'therapy area' benefits, not their own product. For instance, if it is an analgesic, it offers 'powerful pain relief' instead of communicating how it differs in its particular ability to deliver the pain relief, compared with another product. 

Think about the great campaigns that have changed people's attitudes about a product – Lucozade, the Co-op Bank, Skoda, First Direct – they have all offered far more than a message, they have redefined the marketplace in their own favour. Your campaign can do the same, it can make the differences that exist within your product the most important decision criteria in the marketplace, so changing the market to suit you – it's up to you if you want to change things or just tick along. 

Getting to a strong and powerful message is a relatively simple process. But beware the endless brand proposition and brand essence processes that can take days, involving many people filling in complex forms. A small team is far more powerful for producing the right kind of communications strategy, and more time should be spent learning about the competition and the audiences than should be spent in meeting rooms deciding the key sentences to put in a branding form. 

When you have prepared your key proposition for the year, it should have an element in it that scares you slightly. It should be aiming to change something that is a challenge to change, that you are not sure you can achieve, but that you feel should be possible if a good campaign is created. And again, the word 'campaign' is key – it takes a strong offer used in many different media to make a difference, not just a change of line and visual. A real campaign unites all your media, from PR, ads, the salesforce, med ed, new media to conferences on the same strong theme because each has a role in convincing the audiences to change their minds. 

3. Use your visuals as part of the offer 
Too many campaigns think the offer is in the words and just add a 'happy patient' visual. Yet a visual can make a more powerful claim than many a headline is allowed to and can work in many languages. Working in tandem with a strong headline and making a clear offer to the audience, you can use visuals as the most powerful introductory part of your whole campaign. The audiences always look at the visuals before the words, so if it supports the key offer, the ad works twice as hard. 

Ensure you are minimising the amount of information communicated, summed up in an easy-to-remember soundbite

A bland visual suggests a product that hasn't anything really interesting to say. A strong visual reminds the audience of the key proposition every time they see it, reinforcing the core messages. 

Imagine going into a Mercedes dealership to find hard plastic chairs, formica tables and a man in overalls trying to sell you a new car. The visual wouldn't fit the claims made for the brand and would undermine it. Pharma communications work the same way – after all they are the same end audiences. 

4. Don't ask doctors to choose your ads 
The next step is crucial – how you use research to test your new campaign. The biggest rule is never, ever ask doctors to pick the visual they prefer from a range the agency had been asked to produce. 

There is a type of research that asks doctors to score possible ad visuals on a range of spurious measures such as 'memorability' and 'stand out', then present the image with the highest score as the winner. This assumes that doctors are good judges of how a concept will work in the real world and into the future, which is something we would all like to know, but is impossible for anyone to say in advance.

The real role of research is then to check that the creative work successfully communicates what it intends, and that there are no executional issues with the way in which it has been done. 

5. Keep it brief – but layered 
The next stage is to ensure that you are minimising the amount of information that you are trying to communicate to only that which supports your key proposition, summed up in an easy-to-remember soundbite. 

It is tempting to try to tell the audience everything about your product that makes it suitable for use. But this will not work and there is a better way. Research shows that audiences of all types are much more likely to remember your message if you summarise it into one key, easy-to-remember claim. You do need to tell them more detail after this, but only as a support to this key claim and in a clear order that delivers a complete and credible story to them.

This is how we can overcome the limited time our audience has together with their need for enough information to make them change their minds. 

6. Keep your reps involved
Your reps are the equivalent of a consumer TV campaign, except they are more expensive and do not deliver the same message day in day out.

You can try to dictate that they remember two or three key messages, but a more effective way is to take them through your marketing process, including the research that led to it, so they understand the process and believe in the campaign it created. 

Then if they do not use the materials, they will still be on message, as they themselves have absorbed the key elements of the brand story.

7. The same proposition but keep refreshing the strategy
To be successful, your campaign needs to use the same proposition consistently across all media. It must also speak with the same tone of voice or brand essence. Nowhere, however, in the rulebook does it say “use only one visual worldwide”. In fact, it says the opposite, because boring people to death never sold anything.

McGuire's steps to persuasion

  1. Exposure and perception Be in the right place and get noticed above the competition.
  2. Comprehension Make sure the audience grasps the full meaning of what you want to say.
  3. Agreement The key part – the audience will now decide whether to believe your message, is it credible and valid? Does it fit with their prejudices? If not, what evidence does it offer to overcome them? (NB, remember, you have only seconds to convince them, a long list of facts won't do here)
  4. Retention Will they remember your message when they are next in decision-making mode? Have you made it easy enough to remember? Did your visual cut through and bring the message to life, or was it 'safe'?
  5. Retrieval Have you made it easy for the customer to recall the information when you want them to?
  6. Decision making Does your message stand up against the competition and market pressures, so that the customer will decide in your favour?
  7. Action You've made it. Congratulations. This is the bit you can measure best, but you have to successfully clear all the hurdles above first.See for more detail about McGuire's theory.

Psychologists state that the effect of 'multiple source' messages is exponential – in other words, a series of communications which all state the same proposition in a new and refreshing way has the effect of several recommendations from different trusted sources. The recipient is more likely to find the message via 'multiple sources' more credible. 

What we need to do is achieve a better balance of accuracy and persuasiveness in our campaigns. And I mean campaigns, because ads on their own do not change anything very much, what is always needed is a complete plan to take customers on a journey and ads cannot do this on their own. Advertising is a weak tool; it can only tell people one or two facts and give them a sense of the style of product you offer – though of course it does that to lots of people at once. 

What we need to talk about here is the power of not just an ad, but a whole campaign to take your audience on a journey, to change their minds so that they use you more often.

All communications are about taking your audience on a journey – as illustrated by the path of persuasion that psychologists talk about (see McGuire's 7 Steps to Persuasion, above). Only if you take people all the way along this matrix will your communications succeed – which means you need a carefully constructed series of media messages.

In addition to this process, do not assume that just because you have a serious subject it is just a logical sell, and that you do not have to create interest with your audience. Like everybody else, doctors do not like being sold to, and if the message is boring they will do what we all do – ignore it and do something more preferable.

Yet we always judge ads in a boardroom, not in a realistic circumstance – which is probably why we end up with ads that are correct but ineffective. Currently, where the ads are chosen is in a meeting room, with people who live and love the product concentrating hard on which images and message to use. But they are received in a chaotic, busy environment where they are of minor interest. 

Perhaps we should present ads in a busy corridor where our audience is being constantly interrupted. Or ask a salesperson to explain the main messages over a cup of horrible coffee to a doctor with his bleeper going off constantly. Then we might give ourselves a harder task than we currently do when choosing our images and messages.

We might work more to ensure we are interesting, and different – that, in fact, we make a clear offer to an audience that is written in a way they will find useful and relevant to their daily jobs – and become really competitive in our campaigns, not just accurate. 

We have an opportunity to achieve more from our campaigns if we set out to be more competitive. If we concentrate not just on achieving accuracy, but set out to identify and deal with the hurdles that are holding back our brands, we have the opportunity to create campaigns that really change the way our audiences think and act and see sales change as a result. 

And we can then put the overused, safe 'happy patient' ads back in the photo libraries where they belong – for good.

Article by
Dominic Owens

head of planning at Seven Stones. He can be contacted at or on 020 7851 7500

26th October 2011


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