The Courage to Say No

We, as pharma marketers today, are surrounded by more. We have more clinical trial data than our predecessors did, more market research capabilities, more capacity to target on a granular level, more knowledge about our audiences, more ability to measure the impact of what we’re doing, more technology to make our wildest dreams and visions possible, and do so more quickly and efficiently than ever.

More can be a great thing—most of the time. Who wouldn’t want to know more about one’s product, or about one’s audience? Who wouldn’t want to be able to build custom interactive content and aim it directly at the exact folks who’ve shown that they are most likely to benefit from it, and then see how they are responding?

But this vast fountain of more, for all its obvious benefits, also tends to exacerbate one of the unfortunate tendencies of healthcare marketing, one that existed long before any of the more showed up.

We talk too much.

You know it. We know it. A senior citizen watching DTC commercials in Des Moines knows it. Too many of our campaigns are making too many claims, offering too many calls to action, getting lost in too many images and too much verbiage. All this is common, even when anyone who dropped in on Strategy 101 back in marketing school knows that simplicity is what sticks.

We all understand why this happens too, whether we admit it or not. Clients come to the table with years of clinical trial and market research data that they likely spent millions of dollars to acquire—and so they want to use it all, or the opportunity might not be maximized. Agencies come to the table wanting to show off the entire scope of their creative skills. The regulatory people are going to make us add fair balance anyway, so what’s the harm in another paragraph or another claim?

Content often winds up being developed by committee, with every constituency in the room getting their own slice. As brands mature, bits and pieces of old campaigns become part of the furniture for new campaigns. So, the message becomes dense.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

At some point in the history of every brand, a group of people has to sit in a room and decide what they want that brand to mean. They have to boil the brand down to the one or two ideas, or concepts, or images, or attributes that they want to be associated with their brand in the minds of the world at large. That’s strategic positioning.

Avoid Amplifying the Noise

Then comes the hard part. As marketers, we have to stick to the strategic positioning. We have to believe in it, and be disciplined about and committed to applying it in every case. That doesn’t mean it can’t ever change or be revisited. But if your brand is supposed to mean one thing today, then anything that doesn’t clearly tie back to that one thing is likely extraneous and distracting. The marketplace of content out there is noisy enough as it is; we simply can’t go around amplifying the noise by adding more distractions in our own messaging.

Of course, as anyone who just signed up for a gym membership can tell you, discipline and commitment are hard. It’s much easier to just give in a little, to use a little more of the clinical data, to cover all the bases, to keep everyone in the room happy.

But as agency partners, we cannot give in to what’s easy. It is our responsibility to be the voice of rigor and discipline and focus, to keep the message from flying off in all directions. It is our responsibility to hold every potential communication up to the light of the core brand strategy and ask, “Does this really, truly align or not?” And if the answer is no, we need to have the courage to throw it away.

Keep it Simple—and Consistent

Plenty of examples of this kind of discipline—and its opposite—exist in the consumer world. Snickers built a compelling and singularly focused campaign around one powerful insight: You’re not yourself when you’re hungry. The campaign doesn’t extol the nutritional value of being “packed with peanuts” or any other rational brand feature or attribute.

Instead, the campaign shows hilarious—but relatable—situations in which people are thrown off kilter by being hungry, followed by only one line of traditional selling (“Snickers satisfies.”). Informational noise is avoided in favor of simple human empathy and the satisfaction of a real need. For all the seeming distance between candy bars and prescription drugs, pharma brand managers and agencies could learn a great deal from this approach.

Then there’s Geico—by most standards, a very successful campaign. For many years now, Geico has built commercial after commercial on the foundation of “saving money on car insurance.” Yet that focus has been increasingly marginalized in favor of more and more creative executions that are disengaged from the core message and simply attempt to entertain at all costs.

The result is often a confusing muddle in which the core strategic idea has become effectively invisible due to years of overexposure and the increasingly arbitrary comic situations that dominate the spots. This isn’t quite the same as what we in pharma tend to do, but the end result is the same: A loss of focus on the core strategic message that the brand ought to be broadcasting. It’s a great example of a campaign that probably started on point, but lost strategic discipline somewhere along the way because other imperatives (i.e., capturing attention) became paramount. And someone didn’t have the courage to say no.

That’s the kind of courage we need to develop, if we are to serve our clients as they deserve to be served.

  • Steve Hamburg

    Steve Hamburg is Managing Partner / Chief Creative Officer at Calcium. In his multi-decade career, Steve has worked on a wide spectrum of pharma and consumer brands, bringing to all of them a passion for focused strategy and bold creativity.


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