We all love a shiny new feature on a product, don’t we? But increasingly, the shiny features aren’t why we buy. Increasingly, especially as our options expand, we’re likely to buy based on more intangible factors. We might choose between two relatively similar items based on service or convenience; for example, we might want to go to a car dealership close to home or work when we need the oil changed, so we choose this SUV over a similar one that’s for sale farther away.

Or, even less tangibly, we buy based on what the brand means. We buy Ben & Jerry’s ice cream or a Patagonia jacket or Bombas socks because we know something about how the company chooses to work, and we want to support their success by giving them our business … except in pharma. For some reason, in pharma, we’re years behind this. But why?

We Need to Do More
I believe we need to do more than just market a product: we need to understand where our patients and HCPs are, and what they’re going through, physically, emotionally, mentally. It’s our place to do that, now more than ever before.

For years, I’ve been trying to help clients go beyond the basics of what their drugs do, to show up in the world as a brand that gets our audiences. We can get caught up in selling data points. The data is important, of course! But we can forget to give it the context and meaning that it needs.

Even when pharma does try to get personal, it can become somewhat formulaic or predictable. Patient testimonials are a classic example of this. We want to illustrate hope, but sometimes we err on the side of unrealism, and miss depicting what patients are really going through.

Let’s Get Real
It’s time to get honest: to acknowledge and empathize with the hardship and pain, not just the hope and the promise that comes with the difficult medical conditions that our patients bear. Actress Selma Blair’s recent documentary, “Introducing, Selma Blair,” is one recent example that really spoke to me. It was hopeful and empowering, but it didn’t pull any punches. You felt what she was going through.

Realism speaks to people. They appreciate and trust when they sense that you’re being straightforward and not sugar-coating things. I saw this recently working on a market research session in which a patient praised our work by saying, “This doesn’t feel like the typical pharma ad where everyone’s on the beach.”

It’s great to be on the beach … but none of us live there. We have real lives.

It’s clichéd that every marketer brings up the Dove Real Beauty and the Always Like a Girl campaigns, but the reason that we do is that they speak to a bigger purpose. They don’t talk about the benefits of their products. They’ve begun global conversations and empowered people to join those conversations – which transcend soap or tampons – and, in so doing, developed relationships and positive associations with their brands.

We have incredible, emotional, engaging stories to draw people in, if our industry can only learn how to do that with greater sophistication.

In pharma, we are required to talk about a lot of important details. But can we transcend our efficacy data, and our convenient packaging, and our dosing? Some clients aren’t there yet – but we have to get there. CPG marketing eventually learned to tell an emotional story: after all, even Ivory soap doesn’t use the “99.44% pure” tagline anymore.

We get to work in an industry that has a more profound impact on people’s lives than just about anything else. The past year has proven that. We have incredible, emotional, engaging stories to draw people in, if our industry can only learn how to do that with greater sophistication.

People want brands they believe in – particularly those under 40, a majority of whom (both Millennials and Gen Z) say that they want to buy from brands that are socially responsible.

  • Can we tell patient stories that are more fully honest, that give the bad as well as the good, that acknowledge the anxiety and struggle in addition to the hope and the joy?
  • Can we use social media in ways that feel authentic and human, not canned?
  • Can we work alongside our regulatory teams to maintain compliance with all of the necessary laws and guidelines while finding new and better ways to interact with the patients and HCPs who need us?
  • Can we think bigger? There are pharma companies that are B corps — which balance purpose and profit — though not many. What can we do organizationally to change the world, the same way our drugs change patients’ worlds?

Tell Stories Courageously
We need to rethink our role as marketers and commit to show up and tell people’s (in our case, patient’s) stories courageously. In an industry that too often falls back on the predictable and formulaic, being truly authentic is brave and bold. It’s not OUR story to tell, but theirs – and we have to put out content that shows up authentically and is meaningful to the entire community. We need to understand our patients in new ways, and reorient ourselves around them as people, not just as consumers. Where and how do we, as marketers, serve a purpose? How can we be a bridge and make lives easier?

If beers and sodas can make people cry with their ads; if shoe companies and motorcycles can make their brands so beloved that people tattoo their logos on themselves; certainly we, and our brands, can do more to tell stories, touch hearts and motivate minds.