Making a Sensitive Conversation the Right Conversation—Marketing to Late-stage Patients

Recently, I attended a memorial service for a good friend who had passed away after a decade fighting Stage IV breast cancer. She was realistic about her illness, but remained a lighthearted person who loved quizzes and games. Rather than having the usual parade of friends and relatives share remembrances, her family had us all play a trivia game called “How well do you know Ellie?” The winners were awarded cherished items of Ellie’s that the family chose to share.

One of the questions asked was “What was Ellie’s LEAST favorite color?”  Nearly all of us knew the answer—it was pink.

Ellie wasn’t alone in disliking pink and all that it has come to represent in cancer marketing.  Research shows that many people with advanced breast cancer or any other late-stage terminal diagnosis feel that marketers’ messages of hope, fighting, and positive thinking is not only irrelevant, but can create feelings of ill will. Anne Hastings of ASE Market Intelligence has spent time talking to Stage IV breast cancer patients and has found that patients feel marketers are not interested once the cancer has metastasized.  Rachel Geltman of Video Chat Networks, a pharma research company, has also seen this many times. “These patients have a deep sense of isolation and frustration,” and continuing, “They are made to feel that there’s nothing in it for them because they won’t get well, and that can close their mind to further conversations.”

For late-stage cancer patients, the need for better communication is evident particularly when faced with the American Cancer Society’s estimate that 1 in 3 cancer patients do not survive beyond five years. Clearly, it’s not in a patient’s best interest to shut the door to a marketing conversation that can result in a better quality of life. But given their alienated outlook, how can pharma marketers best break through? Below are some observations that can help marketers who want to attract and have better conversations with late stage patients:

1. It’s Not About the Disease, It’s About the Patient

Creating a bond of empathy with a healthcare consumer has always been one of marketing’s biggest challenges, particularly with late-stage patients who have been through more than most marketers can imagine. They’ve been poked and prodded, experienced treatment failures, heard about other people’s success stories when it did not apply to them and have gotten unsolicited advice from many well-intended friends and relatives.

But they’ve done their homework. And on a daily basis they’re making informed decisions about how they want to live out the remainder of their lives as people—not patients. They want to focus on themselves first with a secondary emphasis on their disease, setting personal goals that are attainable. Marketers who acknowledge this will have an easier time starting new conversations.

2. Get to the Point Quickly and Be Authentic

Marketers should not sugar coat messages. Late-stage patients have limited time and patience for hollow promises. If a product can help them have a better quality of life, they need to know the facts up front. Geltman observes, “The decision to go on a new therapy at this point is weighed carefully. Patients want to know what there is to gain and what they have to endure—and is it worth it.”

A good illustration of how to begin a conversation with these patients is AstraZeneca’s Faslodex—a hormonal therapy for women with late-stage breast cancer who have failed on tamoxifen, the industry standard. AstraZeneca realized that their target had progressed beyond typical cancer-oriented conversations and imagery and they needed to be acknowledged for who they were.

The Faslodex launch campaign made a bold departure from conventional DTC language with headlines such as “I am a woman with advanced breast cancer and I am here right now,” and “I am me first. Then I am a woman with advanced breast cancer.” It used striking portraits of confident women who challenged the notion of what it meant to be a cancer patient. This approach tested very well among the target and was used successfully for many years.

3. Provide Clinical Proof

If you’re telling patients about a new drug, give them data. They have become used to processing clinical information and want to be armed and ready for discussions with their doctor. They don’t fear black box warnings or bad side effects. They know there are no magic bullets. And if they can weigh the facts against the risk they can make informed decisions.

4. Create Community

Research has shown that community is key to breaking the feelings of isolation that many Stage IV sufferers feel, and marketers should create engaging peer-to-peer interaction. Support groups work on two levels. They enable patients to vet their feelings and educate themselves, and allow those who have withdrawn from social interaction to have a forum for sharing and positively impacting the lives of people with the same diagnosis. Geltman acknowledges, “once a patient has navigated the process, they like to give back and help others.”

Nonprofits are particularly good at doing this and present a possible avenue for partnership. For example, the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s First Connection Program matches patients across all stages of diagnosis and even family members with peer volunteers based on type of cancer, age, gender, and other factors that help create understanding, empathy, and ease of communication. Peer volunteers are trained in counseling skills and committed to confidentiality.

In short, pharma marketers have a lot to learn from people facing end of life challenges. Listening is a good way to start.

  • Andy Semons

    Andy Semons is Founding Partner and Head of Strategy at IPNY. Andy has worked extensively in the healthcare sector, and is now one of the leaders of IPNY, a New York-based brand communications firm that helps marketers meet the challenge of growth.


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