In our industry, we often use the regulatory environment as a layer of protection, an excuse to not explore and experiment with our marketing. It’s easy to hold up your DTC ROI and claim you don’t need to evolve, to challenge standards, and to seek out the truly creative.

It’s true, pharma marketers have long faced an arduous journey as they navigate what is arguably one of the most stringent—and frustrating—regulatory environments of any industry. In 2020, we continue to grapple with this fact while knowing that additional changes are ahead that could further complicate how we do our jobs and stifle creativity.

In addition to the vagaries of the regulatory environment, we are facing a macro-trend in U.S. healthcare that is moving a large share of the decision-making burden from medical professionals to the patients themselves. The increase in personalized healthcare, or healthcare that is increasingly patient-centric, means that pharma and healthcare marketers are going to have to operate with increasing transparency. Patients are seeking answers.

Where will they go and who will they trust for those answers? Ensuring healthcare companies become the trusted partners to patients in need of information about their conditions has never been more important. And the regulatory environment is evolving in this direction as well. Transparency is the name of the game.

Simplify Information

For instance, in 2018, draft guidance was issued that dictated wording ads in such a way that it became ostensibly more comprehensible for patients. Instead of using terms like “50%,” the draft guidance would require that the same idea be worded as “1 out of 2.” As an industry, we tend toward communicating in a complex way. Instead, we have to acknowledge that patients are being asked to do more around their healthcare—and we have to help them.

At the same time, pharma and healthcare are among the least—if not the least—transparent industries that exist. But we know through studies and anecdotal learnings that transparency works. I read recently in a scientific journal that the more you clearly communicate the side effects of a given medication, the more confidence consumers have in that medication.

One of the bigger changes we’re experiencing is the relationship that companies in our industry have with the FDA. In the past, FDA warning letters were a necessary evil that didn’t strike fear in the heart. Now, the FDA has become more punitive. This is also an election year, which means that, depending on the outcome, we may see a completely different approach toward the regulatory environment than we have seen with the current administration. If a candidate such as Bernie Sanders was elected, for example, we could see a radical shift in the levels of transparency required in our marketing efforts.

A possibility could be that marketers would have to include drug pricing in our advertising, something that has already emerged in proposed legislation. This would be a game changer to be sure, but we shouldn’t be afraid of this possibility. ​We can now follow our coffee drink practically down to the person picking the beans in a jungle, but most of our customers don’t even know the name of the company that makes the drugs they are taking. We know that ​more information around sourcing, production, price, etc., not less, can actually create a lift in brand loyalty. For the first time, pharma and healthcare companies may have the opportunity to build brands with purpose.

Become Transparent and Supportive

When we look at building brands inside this model, there are three types of purpose we consider. The first is brand interaction characterized as “purpose ​with​ you”; in other words, these are brands that are beloved because they build a transparent, supportive relationship with their customers. The other two—“purpose ​for ​you” and “purpose ​to ​you”—promote more of a one-sided brand conversation that is at odds with a healthcare ecosystem that is becoming increasingly patient-centric.

So, what does the “purpose with you” model look like? The foundation is built on a commitment to inform, educate, create community, and even entertain customers. We start this conversation by identifying a core purpose and putting that at the center of our brand strategy: We ask, “What tenets do you want your customers to associate with you?” In the consumer space especially, it is important to define this, as people are inundated with information from all directions and are becoming increasingly discerning about which brands they will or won’t engage with on an ongoing basis. You want them to do this not just out of utility, but also because you have demonstrated you share in their purpose.

Share in the Patient’s Purpose

An example of this model from outside our industry is Patagonia donating its entire corporate tax break to environmental causes, aligning itself and the brand with what they know to also be its customer’s purpose. A pharma brand could undertake something similar that is aligned with the disease or medical condition its product treats, underscoring its leadership. Even more advantageous would be a campaign that involves consumers who may not even be using its drugs—that demonstrates sincerity of purpose and could result in the brand being the one patients will approach their doctors about.

Even if you’re able to work with clients using this model, 2020 and beyond will continue to present challenges for healthcare marketers. The primary challenge by far is not being able to fully participate in the channels in which two-way dialogues happen organically and frequently. We as consumers all want to talk to brands directly, talk with each other about brands, and read reviews. The fact that our industry can’t comfortably exist in social channels is a major issue. We are chartered with marketing modern brands without the benefit of using modern channels, but instead have to rely on legacy channels such as print and broadcast to get our messages out there and to interact with our customers. This is why it seems there now are so many pharma commercials airing on television.

Regulation that restricts the channels we use hampers our creativity, which is paramount in our ability to break through the clutter to educate and inform. Again using the example of television commercials, we find that our ads are more like educational videos than captivating, innovative, and creative work that engages viewers. In general, these spots invariably follow the same formula, mostly due to our regulatory environment. Creativity is the best way to inform people; it makes them pay attention. And continually evolving creative storytelling to keep customers engaged once we do have their attention has never been more critical.

Make Use of Innovative Tech Tools

We are also limited in our ability to use technology in the way that other industries do. The industry has seen an increase in the creation of digital transformation roles both on the client and agency sides, yet there is no groundswell of new and emerging tech making its way into our industry that gives us novel ways to promote our brands. We certainly don’t see anywhere close to a sizable adoption of AI, and even chatbot tools are difficult to utilize given regulations. We could make such powerful use of tech tools that other industries now routinely use to engage and educate consumers.

So here’s the bottom line: At some point, we are going to have to come out of our shells and take risks, despite the challenges of our regulatory environment. If we want to play a purposeful role—which is the way brands outside of our industry are finding success—we may have to engage with the regulators in a more meaningful way.

Adopting this purposeful model will also require us to increase our responsibility as an industry. By moving forward in a more purposeful and responsible way, we have a chance to evolve alongside our customers as they navigate their own health. Otherwise, the gap between our brands and our customers will become so wide that we will lose the ability to effectively communicate with them. We are getting to that point now, and we have to turn this ship around.

Think about this: What happens in five years when your TV spot has the most minimal effect because it reaches a percentage of consumers too small to matter? We are nowhere to be found in the channels that will continue to be of paramount importance in five years—social, voice, and mobile—and that has to change.

Our regulatory environment has evolved to the point where we have no choice but to push boundaries and take risks—not risks so large that we chance being banned from a channel or some other dire consequence, but risks nonetheless. If we don’t, we face a bigger threat—losing relevance with our customers at a time when they are being asked to make more of their own decisions than ever before.


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