Ask most advertising pundits or creative directors what product category is the most innovative and very few will point to pharmaceuticals.
Direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising of prescription drugs is legal only in two world markets: the United States and New Zealand. In the U.S., DTC ads are highly regulated, and governing bodies like the Food and Drug Administration are often behind the times when it comes to issuing guidelines about what can and can't be done with digital ads. Advertisers and their agencies are often left guessing about the role they can prescribe for digital ads, sometimes clashing with in-house legal teams at the manufacturer when ads push the envelope.
So when a solid creative idea or digital strategy emerges in pharma, it's doubly impressive -- the equivalent of creating an artistic masterpiece with a hand tied behind one's back.
Perhaps it makes sense to look at pharma with an eye toward creativity because making digital ads work in this category isn't easy, and some of the concepts and campaigns that come out of it can give us great insight into important aspects of both brand advertising and direct response. Here are a few campaigns that broke the mold.
Viagra: Abundant firsts
Any fan of pharma advertising knows Pfizer blazed the trail for the erectile dysfunction category with Viagra in the late 1990s. The impact on our culture in the U.S. was quick and long-lasting.
But it's the brand's most recent work that had the ad trades buzzing. BBDO led a charge that changed the conversation. "Most men decide they're ready for an ED treatment when they find they can't have a normal erection over someone who's not their wife," said an experienced health and wellness marketer who has worked on the brand in the past. Perhaps influenced by this insight, BBDO unleashed a series of TV ads that represented a series of firsts for the brand.
The ads featured women talking frankly and directly about ED, and they represented a significant departure from what category-leading Pfizer had been using to promote Viagra until that point. First off, it was the first Viagra ad to feature only a woman. Past ads had focused on men.
But it was the directness of the language that captured notice. Previously, Viagra ads had relied on metaphor and imagery to cue patients in. These ads were different. Women in the first round of ads in this campaign used the word "erection" outside of the description of side effects, a first for the brand. For normally-conservative Pfizer, this was seen as an aggressive move to capture additional market share, reflecting both an agreement that will allow Teva Pharmaceuticals to sell a generic version starting in 2017, and the looming expiration of Viagra's patent protection in 2020.
"To paraphrase David Foster Wallace, sometimes the most obvious, important realities are the hardest to talk about," said Jonathan Isaacs, chief creative officer at Evoke Health. "Well, Viagra finally says it: Women really, really like sex, too. You don't just take the Viagra for you. You take it for her, too. So what are you waiting for, boyo?"
Digital ads followed the TV, and while they linked to more information about Viagra, their placement in high-profile areas of male-heavy sites showed an awareness-related objective. True to the campaign brief, the digital ads took up significant screen real estate, featuring women exclusively and using the word "erection" in the headline.
How did this campaign break the mold?
It was an aggressive move for a conservative category leader, and a significant departure from how Pfizer had marketed Viagra in the past.
Gilenya: Supporting patients
Almost any practitioner of pharma marketing will tell you that pulling off social media campaigns can be difficult if not impossible. Remember those in-house legal teams we discussed earlier? They're often fearful of what can happen when patients are given free rein to submit free-formed comments on owned or earned channels. Why? In addition to the usual concerns about negative brand feedback, it opens up a can of worms vis-à-vis adverse events reporting. As in, "If someone were to mention they were taking our drug and experienced some symptoms, we will need to report that to the FDA."
For many years, pharma's standard operating procedure was to minimize such exposure, and it greatly limited what agencies were able to recommend in social media. But at some point, patient engagement and support benefits start to outweigh the risks, and progress continues.
A great example of using social media to help empower patients is Gilenya's "Hey MS, Take This" campaign. The campaign operated across paid, owned, and earned channels, breaking the mold for integrated pharma campaigns that merely featured patient testimonials. Novartis' Gilenya treats relapsing Multiple Sclerosis, and it took patient testimonials in a different direction.
Digital display ads played several roles in this campaign, from encouraging patients to talk to their doctor to linking to additional information. But one role carved out specifically for paid media was to prompt patients to "tell MS exactly where to go." Patient sentiments about MS, interspersed with "official" patient testimonials, provided a focal point for MS patients to seek encouragement and know they weren't alone.
How did this campaign break the mold?
This high-profile campaign showed the pharma marketing category that DTC marketers can't be afraid of social media forever. Executing a fully-integrated social marketing campaign showed patients Novartis was willing to shrug off risk to support them.
Johnson & Johnson: Care4Today
Visit any pharmaceutical marketing conference and you will hear the same mantra chanted throughout many of the presentations: Modern pharma marketing is all about outcomes.
One big issue driving success or failure of patient outcomes on a macro level is adherence. Depending on who you believe, the issue of patients failing to stick to treatments or take their medications as prescribed is a burden on the U.S. health care system that represents several hundred billion dollars in additional costs.
Pharma marketers realize that keeping patients with the program, so to speak, is critical to their success. In many cases, manufacturers have looked to digital media to help with the adherence problem. In particular, with patients using mobile devices to help manage their lives, applications that keep them on schedule with medications can keep them healthier and improve outcomes for manufacturers as well.
In 2012, Janssen Healthcare Innovation launched Care4Today, a technology designed to help patients manage their health. Today, Care4Today is an enabling technology that spawned solutions for heart health, orthopedic, and mental health applications. Adherence is a major component of the Care4Today app, and it gamifies adherence and monitoring family members and friends for adherence as well.
How did this campaign break the mold?
Digital advertising can be a great tool for patient acquisition, but Care4Today shows that it's also important for pharma companies to focus digital solutions on the adherence problem. The campaign further helps the doctor/patient dialog by offering real adherence data that both can review.
What is digital's role for the future?
Digital marketing and advertising will continue to play a huge role in pharmaceutical marketing to patients. The health care industry in the U.S. is going through fundamental changes, including a new focus on patient outcomes, as well as a new trend for wearables and other mobile devices to contribute data and true insight into the patient journey. Quite simply, the old formulas for reaching new patients through broad, wide-reaching TV ads are not working as well as they once did. Not only can digital ads help fill in where TV falls short, but they can also deliver the dynamic patient experiences pharma marketers are expecting from their future campaigns.
Each of the three campaigns we've discussed have shown this new model of patient-centricity in one form or another. Expect pharma marketers to continue to innovate in digital along the same theme.
On Twitter? Follow iMedia at @iMediaTweet.
"Male Doctor with Stethoscope and Blank Medicine Bottle" image via Shutterstock.