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The false economy of following the leader

How can companies in the sector shake things up?


Too many consumer healthcare brands shy away from standing out. Wearing the same clothes as the rest of your category feels comfortable and appropriate, but it’s a formula for maintenance, not change. Tell the same stories as your competitors and you’ll end up occupying the same space in consumers’ minds - and then the only option you’ll have to win more market share is spending money on more media.

Most marketing professionals see consumer healthcare as occupying a more conservative end of the industry. Of course, all that conservatism was born of an ambition to do good - to comply with pharmaceutical regulations that protect the consumer.

But there’s an unhelpful and limiting commercial spillover: a straitjacket of self-regulation and a resistance to the disruptive.

Could an average consumer succinctly name the unique benefit of one headache tablet over another, after having seen both TV ads? Or, if you removed the name and logo, would he or she know which throat lozenge brand was being advertised?

Probably not, unless they were paying very close attention. And that’s not a sensible thing to count on in an age of dual-screening and mobile internet.


While regulation is not the only reason consumer healthcare marketing has become a little tame, it’s certainly one of them. Marketers in the sector have begun subconsciously boxing themselves in and behaving and thinking like one another. It’s fed by an incestuous recruitment philosophy, ie paracetamol brand A hires a specialist marketer from back pain relief brand B instead of looking outside the sector for a fresh perspective on the category.

Conservatism can be an acceptable philosophy, but not if you’re out to win new share: following the leader’s rules only strengthens the grip of the leader on the mind of the consumer.

Which is, of course, why consumer healthcare categories don’t have the same switch mobility as FMCG. Pain relief brands settle for being like Nurofen, cold and flu brands settle for being like Lemsip, and the healthcare world keeps turning without disruption.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. How can companies in the sector shake things up?

Resist the rules set by the category leader

Taking the safe approach and following the crowd simply perpetuates the brand leader’s equity as ‘best in class’, rather than reframing the argument. So rather than battling your more cash-rich competitors, remove them from the scope of your conversation.

For example, when Orajel needed to grow its influence within the toothache pain relief market, rather than trying to compete with the robust equity of category leader Nurofen, the brand recalibrated the conversation around toothache relief.

It reframed the ‘speed of relief’ argument to be about how local/topical a treatment is and therefore carved out a unique and superior positioning for itself, leading to digital ads achieving a click-through rate of over eight times the industry standard for digital display, plus double-digit sales growth for the Orajel brand.

Be brutally single-minded with your brand proposition

The best-formed brands focus on sharpening their proposition to ensure simple, unique distinction, memorability and recall. Volvo doesn’t just mean ‘car’, it means ‘safe car’; Dove doesn’t mean ‘beautiful’, it means ‘happily beautiful’; Red Bull doesn’t just mean ‘energy’, it means ‘energy that gets results’. Simple, emotional distinctions make the consumer’s part of the transaction easy and instinctive.

Yet healthcare brands still frequently give in to the temptation to tick all the consumers’ boxes and try to be all things to all shoppers. They end up lacking emotional resonance because they lacked the courage to choose what they should stand for among the baffling racket of their category.

Pick the right moment to be disruptive

Healthcare brands can access consumers like never before and be incredibly targeted at the point of need. It’s more possible than ever to identify a problem and be on the spot with a solution. But nearly 90% of ads are still ignored, so the real challenge is having the courage to break that fourth wall and turn presence into visibility.

After all, disruption, done right, can be all the more effective in a category defined by carbon-copy marketing. There’s no need to play ‘follow the leader’ any more.

Article by
Royston Reeves

Is strategy director at advertising agency Therapy

26th May 2017

Article by
Royston Reeves

Is strategy director at advertising agency Therapy

26th May 2017

From: Marketing



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