The pharma industry continues to lose popularity contests, if the latest Kaiser Health Tracking Poll (http://kaiserf.am/1UTGMaK) is any indication. It reveals that although most Americans believe prescription drugs have made their lives better, an even greater number hold an unfavorable opinion about the industry, placing Big Pharma near the bottom of the list, just above Big Oil.

Pundits continuously make recommendations (http://bit.ly/1WPvQey) on how to improve the industry’s reputation, often focusing on bridging the still-prodigious gap between perception and reality in public health benefit—and separating the truth from falsehood in pricing, access, and outcomes.

But is that tarnished reputation a cause or a symptom? And what can be done at the brand level to improve the relationship with our targets? If trust lies at the heart of brand health, then how can our brand personality and messaging improve that reputation and maximize reach and engagement for all of our audiences in today’s multichannel world?

Marketers Walk A Tightrope

As a pharma brand steward, a marketer’s job is a tightrope walk between saying too much and not enough. Every marketing message we write is subject to time-consuming regulatory scrutiny, an untenable process in our social media age where customers receive real-time feedback from brands that have already evolved into services.

But as Yogi Berra once observed, “It’s not the heat, it’s the humility.” Pharma brands aren’t products people want—they are solutions patients need to make them healthy again. We’re not “selling” in the traditional sense of branding something desirable. Instead, we’re providing vital data to healthcare stakeholders faced with vital decisions.

Since many pharma customers are reluctant healthcare participants rather than brand-conscious shoppers, we must be sympathetic experts, providing them with information and engagement in a way that best serves their needs, not ours. We must follow the iconic 22 Immutable Laws of Branding (http://bit.ly/1ZChWOA), but based on humanism, not consumerism.

Focus on Your Brand’s Specific Roles

Pharma’s reputation therefore doesn’t need to be “managed” from the top down—pharma brands should rather focus on their specific roles within a holistic healthcare system, ideally designed to diagnose, treat, manage, predict, and even prevent disease for patients, with the help of professionals who heal and coach them.

The task shouldn’t be that difficult since our ultimate goal is to improve and extend life, rather than compromise and shorten it by selling junk food, alcohol, and countless destructive consumer goods. If we are in the business of healing, then let’s unabashedly heal, staying true to the aspirational mission and values of the companies we represent.

With this in mind, consider five key strategies for healing pharma brands:

1. Humanize It

Patients by the millions are using digital to reach out to their peers for healthcare advice and are conducting their own research. Physicians are similarly going online for clinical data and practice management tools. So it behooves your pharma brand to become part of that conversation with the help of patient and KOL testimonials, case studies, and other efforts.

2. Socialize It

Social media remains a significant challenge in our heavily regulated industry, but it can prove particularly effective and remain compliant for unbranded educational initiatives, customer service, and corporate communications. When we see our brand as providing value rather than selling a pill, engagement becomes the first step to building trust and community.

3. Personalize It

Our new omnichannel communications reality offers unprecedented opportunities for learning about our audiences as they interact with our content, then providing customized experiences that become increasingly relevant with each touchpoint. If you expect your customers to know your brand, you should get to know them and make things personal.

4. Analyze It

Who is your customer? Where are they coming from? Where are they along the continuum of care? What are their needs? What kind of content and experiences do they expect? How do these variable evolve over the lifecycle of your brand in relation to the competitive marketplace? Tools and tech are now available to answer all these questions and help guide you.

5. Optimize It

Just as human relationships aren’t static, the most successful, long-term partnerships learn, change, and evolve together. Healthy pharma brands are human, social, personal, and data-driven, ideally suited to audiences that now look to healthcare as an immediate, customized service akin to using Uber, Airbnb, Amazon, Netflix, and others across every device.

Ready or not, your pharma brand has become a customer-focused service. As such, we must become equally responsive to audience needs, listening more than speaking, and seamlessly integrating into their everyday lives.

Patients and professionals are expecting the same kind of engagement from healthcare brands as they already receive from other industries, and digital is optimally suited.

The amazing singularity that Dr. Eric Topol has described as “the creative destruction of medicine” is also transforming healthcare brands (http://bit.ly/1PwbSQm). With a computer in every pocket and biosensors on our bodies, the ubiquity of data and the ease of two-way communication have catapulted us “beyond the pill,” so that pharma brands are no longer mere molecules, but full-service healthcare coaches.

The solution isn’t to build another app, of which we already have tens of thousands, most of them never used (http://bit.ly/1UqVsRH). Instead, healing pharma brands is about using that tech to stay true to our healthcare mission, ultimately helping users do what they do best.

And that is to provide professionals with the information they need to succeed and help our patients return to the lives they loved to live without us.

  • Michael Spitz

    Michael Spitz is VP Strategy at Klick Health. In Michael’s role at Klick Health, the world’s largest independent health agency, he is focused on emerging technology, digital innovation, and channel integration for some of the top brands in pharma and medical devices. He can be reached at @SpitzStrategy.

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