How To Cure Boring Healthcare Advertising

Every year, the healthcare industry pours billions of dollars into advertising and marketing ($9.7 billion in 2015, according to research), making it one of the top 10 biggest ad spenders in the U.S. This trend replicates around the world, causing every agency professional to rub their palms together when they get a healthcare account. However, somehow this segment seems to be the least innovative and definitely the most boring when it comes to ads. Why is that? I’ve come to understand that a big part of the problem is what I call “creative anxiety.”

Granted, healthcare is a very serious industry with an even more serious mission. Healthcare professionals’ everyday language is almost foreign to the rest of the population, and on top of that, their communication efforts are subject to heavy compliance regulations. So, how can a creative mind used to working with consumer products (normally for mass media) deal with this situation? Well, not very well. Most creatives panic, get writer’s block and end up creating a very safe, plain and obvious campaign.

There are other elements that contribute to the lack of great creative, like the undefined marketing channel this industry falls into. Is it B2B, B2C or both? I believe the answer to this question is so specific that it should have its own category. That means different marketing languages, motivations and KPIs, which makes creating an effective, central creative concept a challenge.

Another problem is that, in many cases, healthcare product and brand managers sound more like doctors than marketers. A couple of years ago, a good friend of mine became a brand manager for a global pharmaceutical company. She is an incredibly talented professional and we constantly share rich and fulfilling conversations about advertising and marketing strategies. After a few months in her new job, I noted how her wording had changed. She began speaking more like a doctor — one with unusual marketing knowledge, of course. But still, it made those project-briefs very hard to digest, and passing them off to a creative team was challenging.

Key Factors

We need to be able to grasp the real motivations and emotional drivers behind the business cycle and deliver those in a creative and humane way. There are many, but in this article, I’ll refer to the three most important ones: purchasing decisions, consumer behavior and consumer emotions.

We ought to understand how patients and care professionals make purchasing or prescribing decisions. Three different surveys conducted by the FDA, directed to both consumers and physicians, concluded that direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising increases pressure on physicians to prescribe certain brands. Another studyperformed by the School of Medicine of the University College London also states that doctor-patient relationships are strongly affected by ultimately agreeing to the patient’s needs and concerns. This study found that doctors filled prescriptions to patients who were interested in drugs advertised via DTC even when they didn’t think it was the most appropriate medication for the patient.

Being aware of this industry’s consumer behavior is key. No one is shopping around for prescription medication if they are not sick. The usage occasion is not immediate and the brand cannot generate demand. Therefore, it is only relevant for the consumer who already has the need.

Last, but certainly not least, is emotion. Emotions play a huge role in healthcare products’ lifecycle. Our health affects our stress levels, our ability to interact socially with friends and family and even, in some cases, our priorities in life. This cannot be overlooked. It is paramount that we target these emotions and use them as a means to connect with our audience — and not in an oversimplifying or unrealistic fashion, but in a way that is believable and that actually creates impact.

Breaking The Fourth Wall

How can we approach this industry without losing touch with human emotions? We break the fourth wall. I use this theatrical convention to illustrate how marketers and agencies need to go beyond the standard conversation between a healthcare institution or provider and a patient, in order to create highly engaging campaigns for their services and products.

If we understand that emotion plays an important role in consumer behavior, we should use it as leverage to increase our brand’s awareness and reach. Knowing that the purchase occasion is not immediate and that being remembered by high-risk and potential patients is key for future brand success, we must generate that connection instead of just going on and on about molecules, enzymes and a drug’s mechanisms of action. This will generate impact and brand recall for current and future patients.

A key element that I use to collect patients’ insights is YouTube. Patients suffering from chronic conditions like AIDS, diabetes and schizophrenia, or even terminal diseases such as cancer, capture their journey in video blogs, where they explain their day-to-day lives, how they react to medication and what they consider important. Sometimes, even family members explain how it feels to cope with a loved one who is going through treatment. The same insight discovery can be done inside specialized forums and within the comments section of these videos.

What’s great about this approach is that it can also be taken to the direct-to-physician (DTP) platform. Too often, advertising agencies and pharmaceutical companies see doctors as scientific machines who only make rational decisions. I have learned through experience that this is not the case. Most healthcare professionals are passionate about helping others and worry not only about curing their patients’ diseases but also care about being able to provide them with the opportunity of a better life. Creating an emotional connection with doctors is also important. There are plenty of conferences, brochures and product launches filled with medical information (as it should be), so adding human emotion and value to a very humane industry is necessary.