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Smart Thinking blog

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

Let's rock the system

Marketing is about influencing the decisions your audiences make. But to get there, you may need to change your habits of a lifetime
Rock the system

There's been a guiding assumption in healthcare marketing – and every other kind of marketing – for years. “If only the customer knew as much as we do about our brand, she'd soon change her ways.” But is it true? Is it enough to say, “Inform them, they will come”? More and more, behavioural research suggests not. And as marketers work their way through the popular literature on the subject – books like The Tipping Point, Nudge and Thinking, Fast and Slow – they are increasingly coming to one conclusion: if anyone needs to change their ways it's us.

The new reality

We have to embrace the idea that even important decisions are influenced, if not governed, by our intuitive brain. If we want to change behaviour we need to be a little less preoccupied with our deliberative, analytical minds, the so-called System 2. Our focus needs to shift to the low-involvement, autopilot inside us, System 1.

System 1 evolved for times when snap judgements matter most. Is it food, threat or sex? Should I run towards it or away from it? The emotional responses of System 1 are remarkably fast and accurate. System 1 wants you to act first and analyse later – and it knows what buttons to press. That's why it holds the keys to behaviour change.

This is true, even for deeply analytical healthcare professionals. Unconscious decision-making goes with the job. On average, a physician will interrupt a patient describing her symptoms within 18 seconds. That's all it may take to decide on the likely diagnosis and best treatment.

A data-driven, 16-page sales aid doesn't look like the answer anymore. So what can we do?

Surprise people

Warren Buffet said human beings interpret “… all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact”.

In other words, if doctors are happy and settled with our competitor's brand, facts alone are unlikely to work. We need to shake them awake. Amuse them. Shock them. Charm them. Arouse their curiosity. Do whatever it takes to get a System 1 response, because that's how to mobilise System 2 and shift people's decision-making from a casual, intuitive mode to a more engaged and analytical mode. Get people more alert, more intellectually active, and then hit them with the facts.

Tell a good story

We can't present customers with a list of our brand's features and benefits and expect to change anything. But people will respond to a compelling story. Here's how to build one…

1. Know your audience

We have lots to say about our brand, but none of it is relevant until we properly understand our customers. Yet how can we do that when, in the words of David Ogilvy, “Consumers don't think how they feel. They don't say what they think and they don't do what they say”.

The short answer is to choose our research companies carefully. Anyone can fill a report with the considered opinion of System 2. We need people astute enough to unlock the secrets of System 1.

2. Keep it simple

It's hard to pay attention to lots of information in one go. In fact, the more we are bombarded, the more likely we are to retreat into intuitive thinking. If you're trying to challenge well-established habits, adding extra 'nice to have' facts might actually weaken your case.

3. Start strong

System 1 jumps to conclusions; that's how it works. So the order in which we present our case is crucial. Put more simply, first impressions count.

4. Bring it to life

The visual language of infographics is showing us a world beyond the bar chart. This ever-inventive art form can make otherwise dry data vivid, accessible and unforgettable. Do it right and our story will go viral. The lesson is simple; it takes imagination to capture the imagination.

5. Make it real

Stories are more resonant when people believe in the characters and situations – especially so when they can directly identify with them. It's easy to set our brand story in a world of beaches and sunsets. But the truth about what our brand means to people is far more powerful than the cliché. 

6. Use jeopardy

Humans are driven more strongly to avoid losses than to achieve gains. Tell prescribers how our brand helps them hold on to something they value. We'll have more success than if we promise them something they don't yet have.

7. Feed their feelings

Modern road signs display our speed when we're driving too fast and they're more effective than the old signs. But Lanarkshire Council tried something smarter still: depending on the speed detected, drivers got a sad, neutral or smiley face. The result: speeds dropped by 53 per cent. It worked because these signs gave out more than information. Our sales aids can do the same. Give the prescriber a role. Get them to think and feel along the way.

8. Make it shareable

Pharma has traditionally focused on cascading influence down from a small number of opinion leaders. But behavioural science suggests people are more influenced by their peers.

Translating messages into simple sound bites makes peer-to-peer sharing easier. It may take a lorry load of data for a brand get its licence, but what can we do in 140 characters?

9. Go for action

Getting doctors to the point where they can recite our key messages back to us is not the same as getting them to change their behaviour. Even when there's clear differentiation, knowledge is seldom enough. Smokers know their habit is unhealthy. Quitting takes something more.
Even self-reported prescribing intent isn't reliable enough. The best detail follow-up is a sales chart that moves. And with tablet sales aids allied to closed-loop marketing pharma is beginning to do a more systematic job of ensuring words become deeds.

10. End well

Remember the 'peak-end rule' that says people tend to recall the best bit and the last bit of something rather than the cumulative experience, however long it lasted. A two-week holiday might be reduced in memory to a skinny dip and a delayed flight. Equally, a prescriber's view of a drug will be skewed by the best patient response and what happened with the last patient seen. We can structure our communications around this observation too, creating a natural peak within the story and ending on a strong, positive call to action.


There has to be more to marketing than the distribution of information. Our job is to change the behaviour of people who are perfectly happy not to change. Let's use what behavioural science is teaching us; let's rock the system.

Article by
Christian Dawson

is strategy director, woolley pau gyro. You can email him

27th March 2014

From: Marketing



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