Patient centricity is the latest buzzword, but the truth is Brenda Snow helped start this movement nearly 12 years ago. Brenda launched her marketing career in Silicon Valley during the high-tech boom of the 1980s. But when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) in 1993 she started to rethink how marketers should communicate with patients. In fact, she created one of the first live Internet programs about living with a chronic medical condition— “MS Chat with Brenda Snow” on HealthTalk—and by 2001 she launched her own agency, the Snow Companies. Brenda took the time to speak with PM360 about how her disease changed her marketing approach and formed her agency’s business model.
PM360: How did the experience of getting diagnosed and living with MS affect your perspective as a marketer?
Brenda Snow: At one point in 1994, I was living at a long-term care facility at Stanford University and turned 30 years old, having been institutionalized with multiple sclerosis with people who were well into their late 80s at the end of life, and I remember looking at my reality and thinking “what the hell has happened?” It was really the birthplace—with a sense of irony—of what would later become the Snow Companies, our business model. I remember thinking: “If I could just meet one person like me, who I could talk to, that’s been in my shoes, who could just give me that sense of hope and inspiration, and knowledge on how to navigate things, and what to do next.”
That’s when this notion of connecting one-on-one really started to take hold. Then in 1996, I was taking my injection for relapsing-remitting MS when I noticed that the pharma company that did the manufacturing was right across the Golden Gate Bridge. I called my dad and said, “I want to work in healthcare now. Can you drive me over to this company?”
We went to Berlex Laboratories and Chiron. I went up to the front desk and said, “Hi, I have MS, and I want to meet the people that make your drug.” They looked at me like I was a little bit crazy but they really had never met anybody with MS. All of these researchers and marketers who spent so much time bringing the molecule to a place where it can help patients: They had never met an MS patient.
So the marketing person came out and I said to her, “I think you guys should be doing more for patients. These are some of my ideas.” And she listened. That was the start of the little baby steps that would eventually lead to the formation of the Snow Companies. I went to pretty much every state and talked about what it was like to have MS. What I saw was a huge ground swell. I saw that I felt exactly how everybody else felt—that they didn’t want to hear a pity party.
People really wanted to talk about positive strategies for living, what these new biotech therapies meant to them, and how they could be game changers for some people. And that’s when I thought, okay, maybe we can take something from this world of consulting and translate it into a business in its own right. So I rolled the dice and in 2001 formalized the Snow Companies.
Going back to 1998, you created one of the first live Internet programs about living with a chronic medical condition. Since then ePatients have really started to develop a prominent space online with blogs and community. Can you talk a little bit about this evolution?
It is very important that anybody starting to enter this online space—whether it’s becoming part of a community or a blogger—approaches it with an incredible sense of responsibility. What maybe worked for you—a drug or a lifestyle change—may not work for everybody. I never want to approach the online community by building up that false hope or that expectation that this is the only way to do it.
The power that really lies in the e-space and the power that I saw with my show, MS Chat with Brenda Snow, is helping to build what was essentially missing—that sense of community where people know that they could go and feel like they were part of something and seek out credible information. Diseases are isolating, and if you’re at home and you don’t have any other interaction, it’s risky. That is where online interaction can really make a difference.
So now that patients are able to establish their own voices regarding not only their disease but also their treatment, can pharma companies really afford to market to them without engaging with them?
Pharma companies cannot afford to market to patients without engaging with them. A patient is a consumer and you will lose relevance and credibility if you ignore your customers. And, let’s face it, it’s painful to keep hearing about pharma’s bad reputation.
Engaging with patients only helps pharma’s credibility and shows they have a heart. With patients included in the discussions and put at the forefront, pharma can earn a lot more credit for the tremendous amount of money and commitment going into R&D.
How have you modeled your agency, the Snow Companies, to adapt to this new patient-centric world, and what do the Snow Companies do to ensure that the patient is involved?
We haven’t really modeled our agency to adapt to the new patient-centric world. We were at the forefront of building the patient-centric world—we’re the pioneers.
When I first approached the pharma company back in the 1990s to do the types of initiatives that we currently implement in partnership with our clients, the FDA still did not have a policy on direct-to-consumer and direct-to-patient communications. That didn’t happen until 1998. We were talking to marketers in ’96 and ’97 about DTP-centered strategies but, frankly, their hands were tied because there was no FDA guidance. So we’ve pushed patient centricity and have made people think differently about the voice of the patient in their marketing initiatives and on their communication platforms.
At the Snow Companies we stay connected. I personally talk to tens of thousands of patients annually, and work on the board of several different non-profit organizations. We employ people at the Snow Companies that have chronic illnesses. We are passionate and dedicated.
We represent 40 different brands, and the only thing that is the same is that they all start off by engaging and working with real patients that humanize the brand. We’re conducting 50 live educational symposia a year. That’s how we stay at the top of our game—by putting the patient first.
How will pharma’s involvement with patients continue to evolve?
Maybe the days of seeing beautiful models and sexy ad copy relating to chronic conditions will go by the wayside. The industry should be connecting with real people and families living with and affected by these diseases. And patients should not only provide authentic imagery but lend their voices to all communication initiatives intended for other patients and consumers. Patients are the people that touch everybody’s heart and leave an imprint on your mind. That’s the reason pharma will continue to work with patients, because I can tell you that there are a lot of people whose stories have changed other people’s lives, mine included.