If you could go back in time, wake up a pharmaceutical marketer from a deep sleep in 2004, and ask what the single most important contributor to brand uptake is, what would he say? “Reach and frequency.” Our brethren of 10 years ago—and 20 years ago, and 50 years ago for that matter—were believers in big ideas, strong and memorable visuals, and catchy taglines that could be plastered everywhere imaginable, from bus shelters in Miami to waiting rooms in Anchorage.

While this approach is still frequently used, pharmaceutical companies are beginning to understand that in order to make a true connection, there must be a renewed emphasis on engaging with patients. By focusing more on a robust customer experience, you are able to engage with each patient and focus on their individual needs, creating a more patient-centric experience.

A big one-size-fits-all idea repeated frequently at top volume no longer qualifies as a complete marketing strategy in 2014—and this doesn’t just apply to the pharmaceutical industry. What does Coca-Cola marketing look like in 2014? It depends who you ask because everyone is experiencing the Coke brand differently.

The brand experience can mean something very different to a teenager, a mother of three or retired baby boomer. Understanding this, Coke’s marketing team has found their way into the lives of every customer, trying to discover what is most appealing to them. In 2014 Coke no longer relies on the old reach and frequency marketing model. Yet, many of us in healthcare, a business that screams “personal touch” much louder than soft drinks do, continue to place our fates in its hands.

Big idea = ∑ (Small ideas)

Given the growing expectations of our various audiences and the degree of granularity with which we can reach them, we need to stop thinking in terms of a single brand’s “big idea” and instead start thinking about a large number of smaller ones—all the little ways in which we can communicate with—not to—a single physician, a single patient at a single discrete point in his treatment journey or, even a single managed markets decision maker. We need to build out these small ideas into multiple campaigns that are specifically fine-tuned to narrow groups—e.g., geographic, age, stage in the patient journey, etc.—and then weave all those small campaigns into the great tapestry of a brand.

Taken individually, each of these little bits may not seem like much—a predictive healthy eating app here, a geographically targeted disease awareness microsite there, a compliance reminder every 30 days, and so on. But skillfully drawn together, these little bits should coalesce into an invisible net of useful touch points, seamlessly integrating into everyday life while anticipating each constituency’s needs at just the right moment of their journey.

Who does this well? I’m afraid to be cliché, but it is our friends at Cupertino. Has the Apple brand ever felt like a “big idea” brand to you? Sure, they sell big ideas. But Apple’s brand team would never want to be considered “that brand with the elephant,” or “that brand with the drumming rabbit.” Instead they have contrived an entire ecosystem of minute brand interaction opportunities, each of which offers some little bit of value to a particular audience while gently pulling that audience further and further into the “magical” brand experience—until one day, the customer is waking up and spending the first 30 minutes of his day just interacting with his iPhone in bed.

“Ha!” you say. “Pharmaceuticals don’t work that way. People aren’t interested in interacting with a drug brand that frequently.” That may be true, but it is only true because we made it true by spending the past 50 years unidirectionally blasting one-size-fits-all “big ideas” into the marketplace. If you think folks don’t actively engage in their health, go take a walk in the nearest jogging park and count how many Fitbits you see. Every one of us makes dozens, if not hundreds, of health-related decisions every day. We are constantly seeking out support in making those decisions—from peers, doctors, the Internet and brands. A well-woven brand tapestry should be constantly intersecting with that search. Which leads to our next point.

Customer Service Is Marketing

Try this little thought experiment. Whenever you are discussing a brand with your colleagues, if anyone says the word “advertising” or “marketing,” substitute it with the phrase “customer service” or “customer experience” in your mind. See how that changes your thinking.

Why? Because in the tapestry brand model, customer service is marketing. Faced with cost, efficiency, and treatment outcome pressures, and supported with the digital tools we have available today, pharmaceutical companies have an opportunity to shift the focus of their offering from selling pills to the creation of new treatment paradigms. These will continue to include medication as a component, but they should also include compliance vehicles, educational tools and two-way interaction opportunities all carefully pitched to each patient’s unique circumstance. The measure of success or failure will no longer be about how many pills are sold, but how healthy customers, the patients who use all those services, are as they go through the brand experiences we’ve designed for them.

Faced with competition from generic drugs that sell at one-tenth the price and—frequently—a lack of comparative data to show that a branded product is substantively better than a generic, we can no longer afford to hang our hats on the benefits of the medication alone. We need to build a whole tapestry of services around each brand—ways for physicians to prescribe an interactive education module, to curate content for patients and to help them better understand the condition and how to treat it. It’s not just about treatment with a pill; it’s about putting marketing efforts into the context of an entire lifestyle, right down to a geographic tracking app that can tell when a patient is going to the grocery store and chime in with a few appropriate food suggestions.

Think that might change some outcomes? Customer service is marketing now. Our work as marketers will no longer be judged based on recall or share of voice, but on the degree to which our audiences are engaging with our brands, the degree to which they are motivated by those interactions and how those interactions affect their lives.

An Opportunity Like No Other

The age of the “big idea” was a fun one while it lasted. Come up with one or two clever images or catch phrases, deliver them out through every channel to reach as many customers as you can and watch the money roll in. What’s not to enjoy? There’s an enormous emotional appeal to the idea of being a Don Draper and coming up with that one stroke of advertising genius to immortalize your name forever.

But Don Draper is old news in 2014. He “lived” in an age when the toolbox was limited and customer expectations of brand communications were low. Today marketing is as much science as art, and raw creativity just isn’t enough. Yes, we still need raw creativity and brilliant images and catch phrases, but it is going to take a new kind of skill to assemble the perfect tapestry of harmonious customer experience.

Consider, too, that for anyone who got into this business for the opportunity to change lives for the better, the age of the tapestry of experiences offers an exponentially greater chance to do so. Trying to keep up with countless micro-segments of patient populations, patient interactions, and the infinite combinations of human circumstance, our skills are going to be tested to the very limit. But under this new engagement paradigm, we can keep up, we can offer each person their own concierge brand experience, and we can improve outcomes. We can create a customer experience focused on the idea of true patient centricity.

Weaving our brand’s tapestry and encouraging patients and physicians to interact with it will be more challenging than coming up with one “big idea,” no doubt. A single human, after all, is far more complex than any tagline or bit of brilliant creative imagery can encompass. But the payoff will be well worth it—one individual at a time.

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