How to Reinvent DTC Advertising

Apply GE's Ecoimagination Strategy

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Ecoimagination is a driving force behind GE's growth strategy, seeking to harness GE employees' creativity to design products and services that grow their customers' businesses while causing less damage to the environment. A true win-win initiative.

Perhaps a little ecoimagination could be applied to the pharmaceutical industry, particularly to reinvent direct-to-consumer advertising.

There are parallels; many critics liken DTC advertising to pollution. It is now attached to any product-safety issue, from Vioxx to the most recent questions surrounding Ambien. The adoption of the voluntary pharma guidelines that went into effect in January 2006 are an important step in addressing DTC's environmental woes.

However, the "imagination" part of the ecoimagination concept is equally as important as the "ecologically minded" aspect. I recently spent a day judging DTC ads for a leading industry organization, and I couldn't help but wonder if in an attempt to mollify its critics, pharma was lapsing into the sea of sameness that characterized its early outreach efforts -- namely a heavy emphasis on talking heads and lifestyle vignettes.

Minimizing 'environmental damage'
So how can we put a little more ecoimagination in pharma? How can pharma advance its business interests using consumer communication in a way that does the least amount of "environmental damage" and promotes the maximum amount of business and societal benefit? While I wouldn't pretend to have all the answers, here are a few suggestions for creatively addressing this challenge:

Develop provocative unbranded TV ads in the spirit of public-service advertising. Edgy, breakthrough advertising has made quantifiable improvements in public-health issues such as getting teenagers to stop smoking. Unbranded pharma campaigns can make progress against depression, diabetes and heart disease and build sales. Provocative branded ads often draw criticism, but breakthrough efforts in the service of disease awareness may be less vulnerable to backlash.

What is needed to maximize the impact of these "unbranded" ads on brand sales is a convenient way for patients to opt-in to receiving additional branded information: Web, phone, mail, even video on demand. People are looking for solutions, including names of products they can discuss with their physicians.

Breast-cancer campaign
AstraZeneca's unbranded "If you were my sister" breast-cancer-recurrence-prevention campaign resulted in a significant lift in sales for its product Arimidex, according to Senior Director Don Apruzzese. The unbranded TV campaign was emotionally moving and fully integrated with strong links to Web, mail and phone; it ran in conjunction with a branded print campaign.

The most common objection to the call for more disease-awareness advertising is that it favors the category leader. While condition ads may generate the most sales for the leader, at the end of the day, all brands have more sales. More important, the number of people in treatment grows and the broader mandate of pharma is fulfilled because overall public health is advanced.

Enlist other consumer channels to shoulder some of the brand-building load. Early ads for Relpax, a migraine medication, featured a meteor coming out of nowhere crushing its victim. However it was executed in highly targeted print and radio so that those who saw the ad were those who could relate to its bold message, graphics and sound. The options for reaching consumers have grown dramatically over the last few years. The trick is to know which ones work best for your brands.

Promote cross-pollination between physician and consumer communication channels. Each side of the house tends to use different channels to reach its respective audience, with the physician channels tending to be more high-touch, composed of individual direct selling, small educational seminars and interaction at medical meetings. The consumer side is more mass-oriented and low-touch. Try mixing it up: Pharmaceutical companies have traditionally targeted physician "thought-leaders," physicians whose opinion and prescribing habits influence other physicians. Isn't that effectively what word-of-mouth marketing is all about? The New York Times recently attributed much of the success of the new diabetes drug Byetta to patient word of mouth. Are there consumer thought-leaders who can be transparently and responsibly engaged with your product's message? On the flip side, how can pharma marketers reach physicians using "non-personal selling" channels such as relationship marketing through the mail or Web or 800 number?

Barriers to this cross-pollination exist. Companies need to break down the silos that exist between consumer and physician marketers and ask their agency partners to do the same.

Creatively narrow-cast your messages based on target audience. One of my favorite examples comes from the soft-drink industry. In the U.K., Ogilvy ran ads on the top rather than on the side of the bus stop because their rebellious youth targets rode on the top, not on the inside of the double-decker buses. Where are your prospective patients riding? What are they doing and why? The answer to this question could provide an interesting new messaging opportunity. The new digital world is particularly ripe with opportunities for narrow-casting.

Pharmaceutical marketers' progress
Pharma has made true progress in reinventing the way DTC advertising speaks to patients, particularly in the more transparent and integrated way product risk information is presented in branded TV commercials. One of the first was Johnson & Johnson's contraceptive-patch ad, which has the risk information seamlessly delivered by a physician. But there's an opportunity for even greater impact by pushing the imagination part of the equation. Imagination built on robust insight into patient attitudes, feelings and medical needs. Communications that don't get noticed or fail to motivate are a waste of money. More critically, though, mind-numbing sameness is a squandered opportunity to make a difference in a person's life.
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