Leading with Empathy and Realism in Cancer Immunotherapy

Let’s be honest. The field of cancer immunotherapy is rife with criticism for how marketers communicate with patients. And justly so. These therapies are defined by superlatives from the time they are in the clinic (http://bit.ly/2gPWafh). The very promise of these “breakthrough,” “game-changing,” and “revolutionary” medicines puts stars in our eyes, even before we fully realize their impact on patients. The dazzle of new drug discovery fizzles pretty quickly when you’re faced with the prospect of life or death (as many cancer patients are, who are prescribed an immunotherapy treatment).

Communicating with patients and caregivers at this stage in their patient journey is no small feat. Marketing in cancer immunotherapy is as nascent as the clinical field itself. As drug developers continue to trial and win approvals in new types of cancer, we learn more about the field and those experiences will inform the evolution through which we communicate about drug benefits, risks, and ultimately, the patients’ experiences.

“Discipline is Liberation”

The brands that see this not as a creativity-limiting challenge, but as a real opportunity to deliver value to patients and caregivers alike, will be the leaders among the cancer treatments of the future.

Founder of American modern dance, Martha Graham once said, “discipline is liberation.” We can apply this to marketing medicines in this emerging field. If we remain fully engaged with the patient experience and committed to communicating with transparency, authenticity, and heart, then we fear less what there is to say, because we are so focused on the good that can come from what we do.

We can think beyond the confines of the label to embrace a new reality that positions your brand at the center of every stage of the clinical experience by attaching it more closely to the emotional experience.

Writing an Empathy Brief

How can you get there? Start by casting aside conventional notions of patient marketing. Discard old formulas, tired creative, and the expected channel mixes. Boil down everything you know about the patient journey and the clinical experience into one, simple question: How do you feel? Translating patient and caregiver insights into an empathy brief can help you apply patient-centered design and communication strategies to your brand’s marketing. The empathy brief has three components.

1. Relate to Your Audience

First, relate to your audience by acknowledging a feeling you know they have or that you share. For example, it’s not uncommon to see selfies posted on Instagram from patients who are receiving immunotherapies at infusion centers. You have to wonder why they chose to capture that moment in time when they are feeling scared, sick, or in pain. But, maybe that’s the point. Maybe they want to be seen and accepted? Maybe we all do.

Plagued by pain for much of her life, Mexican painter Frida Kahlo painted two thirds of her 143 paintings as self-portraits. Illustrator of the book, Frida, Benjamin Lacombe, suggested that “to summarize this oeuvre as mere vanity would be extremely reductive; her self-portraits represent, rather, her need to portray her pain.”

This desire to be seen, felt, and understood when you’re in pain is universal and certainly a relatable emotion in which to ground an empathy brief.

2. Introduce an Insight

Next, promote a sense of understanding by introducing an insight that your audience may not know.

A study about immunotherapy awareness and perceptions (http://bit.ly/2zd9QZq), conducted by Inspire in September, found that while 95% of cancer patients surveyed have heard of the term “immunotherapy,” 78% have only some knowledge or no knowledge about what it means. Inspire found that many patients lacked knowledge around technical terminology like “biomarkers,” “PD-LI expression,” or “CTLA-4 pathway,” and only 40% could think of a brand-name treatment. Most concerning of all, 30% of those who didn’t understand the term were not at all likely to ask their doctor about a treatment.

The education gap in immunotherapy is considerable and directly correlates to the treatment path. Therefore, our insight might reflect the idea that education is a critical factor for empowering patients along an immunotherapy treatment path.

3. Bridge Into a Solution

If a person with cancer feels a deep emotional need to be understood, maybe the absence of that persists as a roadblock to her understanding of the more clinical aspects of immunotherapy, which we know is critical to the initiation of a conversation with her doctor.

In this case, our solutions must originate in patient-centered storytelling, where we have a larger emotional canvas on which to paint.

Taking It to a Whole New Level

According to iSpot.tv, over the last 30 days, commercials for the two leading drugs in cancer immunotherapy have run more than 1,500 times. But how well does the awareness driven by TV advertising translate into patient education and empowerent? Not well, suggests oncologists Lowell E. Schnipper, MD and Gregory A. Abel, MD, MPH, in a paper they co-authored for JAMA last year (http://bit.ly/2iFDTSk). They argued that DTC advertising in cancer does more harm to patients and public health than good, feeding misconceptions of efficacy and causing “concomitant harm to the patient-physician therapeutic relationship.”

Companies looking to get more out of their immunotherapy brands will look beyond the 90-second medium to engage audiences on a new level.

Go Deeper

Of course, building a digital ecosystem around your immunotherapy storytelling venture enables your brand to go deeper than what may be afforded to you in the first commercial break during The Big Bang Theory, for example. Digital enables you to meet consumers where they are—and on their terms. The idea of a linear patient journey sounds prehistoric by today’s standards, and as marketers we have to create a compelling experience for our audiences across several touchpoints, and multiple times. The good news is that doing so can create a richer and more meaningful experience for consumers who engage with your brand.

Be Unafraid

The upside to innovation in pharma marketing is that for one brief moment, you are unhindered by rules. You have to partner with experts in legal, regulatory, and medical safety to freshly interpret compliance in an uncharted territory. While time intensive and rigorous, this will always be the best path to preserve the integrity of new ideas. In these moments, channel your inner Robert Kennedy, who said, “There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”

Being where consumers are—in social media—requires you to take a hard look at the channels, mediums, and storytelling types you use. And for the effort it takes to create new marketing capabilities within your company, ultimately it will always be easier to engage consumers with social media than it will be to drive millions of impressions to a brand new website they have never heard of.

Are You for Real?

There are healthcare brands that try to manufacture empathy. Consumers can see through this. In 2014, a small study conducted by Software Advice found that 69% of consumers said that customer service experiences improve when it sounds like agents aren’t reading from a script (http://bit.ly/2iDSOwz).

While empathy can’t be faked, it’s also not necessarily intuitive. More brands need to invest in training and tools for communicators, sales forces, and healthcare providers to promote empathic experiences for patients and caregivers. What this means for marketers: Getting better at partnering with patients to tell authentic stories and co-designing experiences that will add value to their patient journey.

As transformative as the potential is for immunotherapies in oncology, so too is the opportunity to engage patients in deeper and more meaningful ways by rooting your brand in empathy, using social and digital marketing to practice deeper storytelling, and insisting upon realism and authenticity in all of your brands’ stories.

  • Kirsty Whelan

    Kirsty Whelan is VP, Strategy at imre health. Kirsty leads strategy for imre health, a creative-led social and digital media agency that has a transformative impact on healthcare companies and its audiences. She is passionate about helping humanize pharma brands in the eyes of consumers. 


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