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Secrets of Pharma Advertising

If the goal of branding is to be different, why do so many Pharma brand ads look the same?

Everyone in the pharmaceutical industry knows what a generic is. It is a faithful copy of a tried and tested formula. Not truly unique, but a 'tribute brand' that extends the benefits of the original to a wider audience.

Everyone interested in popular culture knows what a genre is. It's a particular style of movie, music, literature or art that follows a tried and tested formula. Genre and generic come from the same word root, meaning a common type or form of something.

Mark Kermode's recent TV series Secrets of Cinema lifted the lid on different movie genres - rom-com, heist, coming of age, sci-fi and horror - and explained the common elements that define them. Each genre has its own conventions, clichés and plot structure, designed to meet the expectations of its audience and ensure there are no hidden surprises, only the ones they are anticipating.

Why do genres exist? It's not laziness on the part of the creators. It's because the audience dictates the outcome, and people are comfortable with what's familiar. When they watch a movie, they want to know the general direction the script is going to follow. Before release, most Hollywood movies go through a test screening with members of the public to gauge their approval - and the public knows what it likes, but it also likes what it knows. That's why we get Jaws III, Rocky V and Fast & Furious 7.

When genres collide or fracture, it can lead to confusion. From Dusk till Dawn is a heist movie that turns into a horror flick halfway through. The Shape of Water is a sci-fi horror movie that mutates into a musical rom-com. Blazing Saddles is a western that is also a comedy (Young Frankenstein and Spaceballs did a similar mash-up with horror and sci-fi). They only got through because they were created by powerful figures like Tarantino, Guillermo del Toro and Mel Brooks, who could challenge the system.

But take an art form that is driven by its creators, like music, and you get a proliferation of genre-busting ideas that subvert formats. Blues mutated into jazz and rock, which evolved into R&B, soul, rap, hip-hop, metal, funk, punk and indie. Now it's almost impossible to keep track, because new categories of music - neosoul, grime, psytrance, hardstyle - bubble up and burst every month. If a genre doesn't find an audience, the creators devise another one.

Does the public shun these new musical forms? No, because people are open to new ideas. In fact it can be irritating to have a narrow interpretation of your preferences replayed to you. Algorithms that manage your Spotify playlist deciding you love reggae after you download a track by The Police. Programmatic advertising that bombards you with ads for garden gnomes because you did a search on the human genome. Being told "People who bought this product also bought..." after every Amazon purchase.

Everyone in marketing knows that differentiation is the secret of a successful brand. That's what we tell ourselves. So why is pharma advertising so generic? Why are so many launch campaigns carbon-copies of their predecessors? Largely because pharma advertising is a self-referential genre. Asthma ads look like asthma ads because that's what the audience expects. Market research cements assumptions, and agencies repeat existing formats because it is safe to adhere to a well-tested formula.

Most people in advertising agree on what it takes to make an effective campaign. You need to be customer-centric, understand your audience and what motivates them, provide information that is relevant and engaging, and tell them what your brand can do for them. But if we are all following the same formula, isn't that the recipe for a generic?

There are, fortunately, some secrets that can stop advertising from being generic. Like most trade secrets, they're not really secret at all - just empirical knowledge combined with nuggets of wisdom stolen from the best practitioners in consumer advertising.

The first secret is: The prime purpose of advertising is to get people's attention. Without gaining attention, all the other elements of the advertising model - interest, desire, action - count for nothing. This is second nature to tech companies, who embrace the phrase "the attention economy" because the currency they deal in is clicks and views. Social media has developed a host of tricks and techniques to get people hooked. The fight for attention is especially critical for advertising, because advertising is a distraction from the viewer's main focus, and it has to jostle with a host of other distractions - which now include social media and all the other digital channels.

Before your brand can disrupt, it first has to interrupt. The breakthrough is realising that your audience has better things to do. The most beautifully crafted, persuasively written, award-winning ad is a waste of effort if the signal fails to break through the noise.

The second secret is: Being memorable is more important than being relevant. Huge amounts of time and effort are spent on ensuring campaign messages are precisely tuned to the target demographic. But remember you are competing with everything else that clutters up your customers' short-term memory.

People are more simple and more similar than you think. (This isn't to say they're stupid, so you should never dumb down). We are all human beings, with eyes, ears and a central nervous system, and we respond to the same basic stimuli. Showing them something they are not expecting to see or hear makes your communication stick in the mind and stay there. Once you have people's attention, ask yourself: what taste will linger after the first bite? What will make them come back for seconds? Relevance can be stretched to breaking point when it is attached to a truly memorable idea.

The third secret is: Don't ask the audience to write the script. It's good to listen to what your customers say - that's where insights come from. Consulting the end-user is very useful in analysing a problem; less so in developing a solution. Ad testing in particular asks the customer to act as a critic and analyst, and that is not the way people consume ads, which is a passive and uncritical process. Ask someone to unpick an ad for a new dermatology product, and they will compare it to other dermatology ads they recall, expressing confusion at anything that looks different. "I don't get it" is not a fatal adverse reaction, it's a healthy response to a novel idea. Audience responses need to be interpreted, not taken literally.

You also need to be wary when asking customers what they want. Mostly they want what they've already got, just better or cheaper. Henry Ford (who brought motor cars to the masses) said: "If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses." Where new ideas are concerned, people don't know what they want until they see it. The iPhone was not a response to customer demand, it was a leap of imagination by Steve Jobs to pack a media player, a phone and an internet communicator into one device. Don't give people what they ask for, give them what they need, even if they don't know it yet.

The next secret is: Emotion, not reason, is the key to engagement. Most of us acknowledge this, but seldom put it into practice. So what is the secret to getting emotional engagement? It starts by turning the marketing telescope around 180 degrees. Instead of being concerned about whether your customers get your brand, you should focus on whether your brand gets your customers. Showing them (through your advertising) that you know what makes them worried, what makes them angry, what makes them laugh, or what makes them tick.

True empathy means understanding and expressing what matters to people. Don't deliver a lecture, tell a story. Don't just communicate to them; make them part of the communication itself. The emotion cannot be empty, it must be honest and authentic, because people value meaning and purpose. Consider how well your brand is aligned with your customers' values, and where your brand intersects with the things they care about. Achieving empathy is not a simple process, but it's what distinguishes great creativity from generic communication.

The final secret, which sums up all the previous points is: It's better to stand out than fit in. Differentiation is crucial in a competitive category, especially when the differences between brands are small. This seems so obvious it hardly needs saying. Yet it's understandable why brands sometimes converge. If you are managing a small brand in a crowded field, mimicking the leader may seem like a sensible idea. What worked for them might work for you, and you don't want to gamble if you only have a small stake. But if you blend in with your competitors, your customers will see the category as homogenous, and they will continue making their current choices. You need to break the belief cycle to break the habit.

It doesn't matter how little your brand varies from its rivals; do everything you can to focus on the difference and amplify any advantage you have. The one positive about pharma advertising being a genre is that if everyone else is doing the same thing, you only have to be slightly different to stick out like a sore thumb.

"If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always got". So said Henry Ford, the car guy, who was also a pioneer of mass production. The corollary is that if you want to change the end result, you need to do things differently. To avoid pharma advertising being formulaic, we need to change the recipe and change the script. And if all else fails, cheat. In the words of Bill Bernbach: "Creativity is the last unfair advantage we're legally allowed to take over our competitors."

©2018 Life Healthcare Communications

14th June 2019



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Life Healthcare Communications

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