We’re Never Going Back to Our Regularly Scheduled Program

“I wish life could just go back to normal.”

Amidst the obsessive sanitization, the contact-less delivery, the video conferences, the closet clean-outs—this is the wistful appeal we all make.

But will life go back to normal, post-pandemic? Unlikely.

It won’t be the newly acquired ways of life that will linger and change the course of society—we won’t stockpile hand sanitizer or insist on all working from home forever. Rather, we’ll be eager (ecstatic, even) to shed many of these actions, as they serve only as painful reminders of the pandemic.

We will seek to pick up where we left off. But something will be different. As framed by Kantar’s Chief Knowledge Officer, J. Walker Smith in a recent webinar, the COVID-19 pandemic will have caused a disruption—in the same way that wars, financial downturns, and life-altering inventions have caused them since the beginning of time. And a cursory look back will reveal that these societal disruptions left a crack in the way things were. As Smith put it, “Disruption wipes the slate. It clears away the obstacles that have been keeping the next big thing in check.”

So, what were the next big things gaining power pre-pandemic? And how will they affect our world of health and wellness once “programming resumes”?

On-Demand Healthcare

The pandemic has awakened a feeling of vulnerability around personal health. We have become acutely aware that a virus or disease can seemingly come out of nowhere and promptly take anyone down—regardless of age, relative health, access to care, or adherence to precautionary measures. Thus, a cough will now be more concerning. A fever will be frightening.

This vulnerability will amplify the desires of patients and caregivers to seek support as soon as symptoms appear. And patients will want this support faster than ever before, because the gap between not-knowing and knowing—before diagnosis, before treatment—will be filled with anxiety. There was already dissatisfaction with the glacial pace of healthcare, as compared to the two-day shipping, grab-and-go, always-streaming world around us. The demand will intensify for healthcare to finally fall in line.

So how will this desire for care-on-demand manifest?

  • The growth of urgent care centers and retail-based health clinics—greased by a generation of Millennials already uninterested in a relationship with a specific doctor—will be met with open arms. “Minute clinic” will become the eponym for “doctor’s office.”
  • In cities, concierge medical offerings will grow in popularity. All those celebrities getting preferential COVID-19 testing? Everyday patients will want that kind of privilege, too.
  • Telemedicine will finally get traction…
  • …although it will require an increase in the already pined-after population of nurse practitioners and physician’s assistants. (Take note, college freshmen!)
  • Bolstered by the buzz around the DTC models of Roman and hims & hers, direct-selling of medication will complement the other evolutions toward grab-and-go healthcare.

A Reunion Tour for Brand Trust

Trust in brands was previously fractured—only one-third of consumers trust the brands they buy, according to Edelman’s 2019 Brand Trust Survey. In an attempt to repair it, companies had been trying to connect on a more human level, including the support of causes that customers care about—charitable giving, sustainability, social justice. But it hasn’t moved the needle much, particularly in healthcare, as outrage over access to care and medical costs were hitting all-time highs.

Yet, according to a recent Kantar survey, brands and businesses are viewed as responding more appropriately to the pandemic than any other institution. What’s different this time? Whether it’s special shopping times for vulnerable populations or no-questions-asked refunds, pandemic-driven business offerings are allowing our communities to keep operating. The humane corporate gestures that consumers have always craved are finally being made.

So, when the crisis ends and daily life resumes, how do brands maintain these personal and communal connections? And, presuming pharma comes through on vaccines and treatments, how can our industry catch and ride the wave of good reputation?

  • It will no longer be enough for personalized marketing to just focus on individual habits and journeys. It must also speak to individuals as part of communities and sub-cultures—“support me, support my friends.” Through marketing automation and dynamic creativity, national brands will need to communicate with a level of intimacy once reserved for local businesses.
  • That local reflective will also show up in how brands and companies participate in charitable giving. It will be crucial to carry through sponsorships and support to the community level—going beyond a logo on an event banner and demonstrating a deeper commitment to local participants.
  • As pharma marketers, this move to more local, intimate relationships with brands will also manifest with the sales force. They’ll take on increased responsibility as “community liaisons,” gathering and bringing back insights to HQ and being instrumental in delivering smarter solutions to the region.

Empathetic Economics

It’s hard to remember but, just a few weeks ago, the headlines were consumed with debates about “healthcare for all,” regulations on prescription drug pricing, and the crippling effects of the opioid crisis. These topics were symptoms of a larger unrest that has underpinned society for all time but has come to a head in the last decade: Outrage over economic inequality and the social divide it creates.

It is already clear that the economic impact of the pandemic will be unprecedented—the U.S. is certain to enter a recession and every American will feel the trickle-down effects. Government aid will help, but it won’t be a panacea. The resulting fall-out of unemployment and overall decrease in societal wealth will create a larger group of price-sensitive patients who will still need the medicines they received and the surgeries they scheduled just a few months ago, yet they will no longer have the financial resources or the employer-provided insurance to pay for them. The number of “have-nots” will increase and the gap between them and the “haves” will only widen. For marketers to ignore this and consider business as usual would be catastrophic on healthcare’s already fraught reputation surrounding costs, transparency, and value.

Although these big issues won’t be solved overnight, companies and brands can demonstrate empathy through behavior and service:

  • If more people are paying out-of-pocket, visits to the doctor will decrease. The void will be filled by online information and self-care, offering a natural place for pharma to provide support.
  • More than ever, value will be a crucial factor in purchase decisions. Will this medicine actually help me? Will it have lasting effects? Priority will be given to those brands who provide assurances, evidence, and resources to support this claim.
  • Paying for and staying on medication will balloon into a bigger concern—for both patients and their prescribers. Pharma can proactively ease their concerns, whether by providing insurance coverage insights personalized at the practice-level or making co-pay assistance front and center in consumer marketing.
  • The government will be forced to wake-up and reconsider their over-policing of inducement in this quadruple aim world. By allowing brands to partner with health systems and providers on programs that improve “successful starts” and adherence (vs. labeling them as kickbacks and inducements to prescribe) to help ensure positive outcomes, patients will get the resources they need to be successful in health. That’s an economic win for everyone.

So, while you’re hiding out in your marketing bunker, make use of a few sheets of your stockpiled paper goods and start sketching out your brand’s plan for the future. Despite the bleak news of the moment, a brighter future will be here before we know it—let’s be ready for it.


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