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Technically speaking

Vineet Tapar (Digitas Health) takes at look at where pharma is using social media to best effect

A computer generated figure speaking into a mobile phoneToday patients are driven by a need to participate in their own treatment. Limited in face-time with their doctors, they seek second opinions and accurate information elsewhere. Empowered by technology, they verify and fact check. They communicate with others using Wikis and blogs, YouTube and Facebook and exchange freely their points of view – raw and unfiltered.

Social media has disrupted traditional marketing and brand thinking; in turn is influencing how pharma brands are listening and responding to patient populations.

Pharma marketing is shifting from 'selling' products to 'helping' to improve lives. Here are five examples of therapies that are employing a 'helping' approach, responding to the larger patient experience. In the cheeky spirit of awarding appropriate points based on 'listening to patients', ads that take little advantage of new technology get two cans and string; the most savvy are awarded a smart phone with app downloads. Ads in between receive a rotary-dial phone and an 80s brick phone, respectively.


ONETOUCH – for diabetes


OneTouch is a metre for people with diabetes. The Global Diabetes Handprint is the campaign it has created in support of 'The Word in Your Hand' project on The ads invite the patient group to submit its own stories online, and feature real users of the OneTouch device, presumably from the ever-growing database of stories. This seamless, symbiotic integration of offline and online never takes away from the ads themselves. The large format photos of real individuals, quotes and words on their hands emphasise the humanity of diabetes patients, as well as others whose lives they touch. The focus on patient stories has a hallow affect on the OneTouch brand, by almost endorsing it by their very presence.

A mobile phone For running this well though out, well devised 'adverdorsement', OneTouch gets the smart phone with health app downloads!


ALLI – for weight loss

The first thing you notice about the Alli ad is the celebrity endorsement by singer Wynonna Judd. That first blush of celebrity curiosity is enough to get you to read at least the first few lines. This is where her story about dieting actually does connect with patients. But then the ad promises even more patient stories at That's where one finds more tools and real, relevant patient stories, albeit provided by the brand and not directly submitted by patients themselves. This makes Alli feel like a brand that cares about patient outcomes, even as it seeks to maximize its market share. Of course, one wishes that some of those patient voices could have been pulled through to the ad, even if only in the content and not the headline. The category is ripe for learning from patient experience.

Alli advert 

For making the effort that can easily be enhanced by the patient experience, Alli gets the 80s brick with the antenna

  A cordless phone

ALK-ABELLO – corporate

ALK-Abello advert

Every ad that is cognisant of patient voices doesn't necessarily need always to feature them. Conceptual wit is a smart way to enhance patient recall while being true to larger patient truths. This ad by ALK-Abelló not only gets the idea across using intriguing concepts and visuals, it also informs patients of the many resources available to them online. This drive-to-web strategy allows every touchpoint in the marketing mix to perform its function well, layering in successively deeper experience with the brand. However, a quick follow up on the destination reveals purely brand-focused information for the most part, and no patient stories despite a 'join the fight' call to action. That strikes one as an opportunity lost not only to bring patients into the brand experience, but truly get them to join in the fight armed with resources, tools and information. This ad sets up great expectations but the destination it points to needs to do more to pay off the promise.

  A cordless phone For now, ALK-Abelló gets the 80s brick with the antenna!


CYMBALTA – for depression

This ad is a good example of a conceptual tie-in with other media channels. Cymbalta's platform idea — 'Depression Hurts' — is carried through here, but the strength of the ad itself is never compromised. It serves as a good vehicle for a multiplicity of brand messages, including an invitation to visit the brand website to find more patient stories and voices. Unfortunately, that information is buried deep within the copy and so it's likely to get missed by a majority of readers. While Cymbalta doesn't put patient voices at the centre of the brand experience, it makes them available to others to learn from, and includes tools and resources online. Good, but an opportunity missed nonetheless.

Cymbalta advert 

For now, Cymbalta gets a rotary dial

An old fashioned handset phone

BETAFERON – for multiple sclerosis

Betaferon advert

This ad speaks in the patient's voice, in outcome-related aspirational statements. The visual is true to the patient segment and beautifully captures a 'real person' (albeit a pretty one) immersed in his/her 'real' environment, experiencing a 'real' moment. Those are all good things. However, the concept of "to be..." is not supported through meaningful content in the creative. There is nothing here that gives even a nod to the larger issues facing a patient with MS, even as they are acknowledged in the headline. Betaferon has missed an opportunity here to do more than just talk in its patient's voice. MS is a progressive neurological disorder and treatments are focused primarily on preventing symptom relapse. Betaferon could bring in real patient voices, tools for decision making, even subject matter experts addressing real questions in its ads, so it participates productively in the larger patient experience. Research online reveals that it has such information available at its website. Pulling it into the advertising will garner the brand goodwill of its patient population.

 A pair of paper cups connected with string  


For now Betaferon gets two cans and a string


Vineet Tapar


The Authors
Vineet Tapar is vice president and creative director of Digitas Health

To comment on this article, email

Ad Lib is a creative critique of healthcare ads and does not take into account the marketing objectives behind the campaigns reviewed.


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8th April 2010


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