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How the Unbranded Approach Can Actually Strengthen Your Brand

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Unbranded or disease awareness campaigns are not for the weak of will. Executing them demands a special kind of commitment in the marketer’s mind, a commitment to an abstraction, the idea that well-targeted unbranded patient support can in the end lead to real branded sales. An investment in disease awareness requires two characteristics: faith and patience. Faith in the strength of one’s brand and in the value of the patient support one’s company can provide, and patience to wait while those two things tie themselves together out in the marketplace.

We’re not talking about religious-style faith here, though -- the belief in a thing unseen. Because with years of disease awareness campaigns already in the history books, there’s plenty of data out there backing that faith, data that shows that disease awareness works. And today, propensity data can even inform disease awareness campaigns ahead of launch, guiding the entire strategy with a laser focus. In the right space at the right time, a good unbranded disease awareness campaign can catapult an already successful brand to new heights, or help prime the pump in a brand-new disease category. It can offer a way for companies to participate in patient conversations, to learn what their brand’s actual and potential end-users are thinking and feeling, to get a sense of the patient journey that might otherwise be beyond its reach. And it can offer a measured way to reach into the lives of patients at the exact time when they are ready for a branded communication, and not before.

Know your topography

Disease awareness offers two primary benefit pathways for the brand that successfully engages it. First, a well-crafted disease awareness campaign, particularly one with strong digital and interactive elements, can provide a lead generation source for later branded outreach. And second, disease awareness offers an opportunity to inspire patients to some beneficial action or actions when the time is right, progressing down the earlier part of the patient journey until branded communications make sense.

The first of these two pathways is true nearly irrespective of market conditions. But the second is a little more variable, and can actually boomerang if the landscape is unsuitable. So before stepping into disease awareness, one must begin with an understanding of your brand’s competitive landscape and market position. For example, a well-planned disease awareness campaign in the hands of a market leader or top-shelf competitor can be a powerful competitive weapon; by bringing new patients into a space where the odds are already in your favor, you are engaging in what the generals would call force multiplication, and all this without one potentially off-putting mention of the brand itself. On the other hand, a latecomer to the space in a weaker sales position may earn the lead generation benefit, but the results may land in the pocket of stronger competitors; patient A is inspired to ask his doctor about condition B, and the doctor diagnoses it but prescribes drug C, the market leader, rather than drug D, the sponsor of the awareness campaign that put all this in motion. So the relative benefits and costs of such an outcome should be carefully considered in such circumstances before proceeding with a disease awareness campaign.

The state of awareness

Competitive landscape doesn’t just mean sales ranking, though. The state of awareness is another crucial consideration. Common or rare, big or small, acute or chronic, do the patients with a particular disease have access to the information they need in order to follow a path to diagnosis and treatment? The answer to this is not necessarily parallel to the level of product saturation in a particular disease state; it is quite possible for patient information to be lacking even in a space where a large number of drugs are available, even successful. This scenario presents a juicy target for any brand to launch a disease awareness campaign, no matter where that brand might fall in the sales rankings. The first to market with disease awareness here may land a greatly magnified lead generation benefit – since no one else is out there generating leads with unbranded conversations. And even if plenty of information is out there, once one examines and breaks down the patients’ informational needs and matches them up to potential hurdles in the patient journey, one may find a gap that can be leveraged to your brand’s benefit.

For example, perhaps the marketplace is filled with information about disease X – if someone looks up disease X on the Internet, dozens of disease awareness sites with mountains of disease information pop up. But in your study of the patient journey for disease X, you find that the primary hurdle for most patients is simply reaching diagnosis, a point at which even the fact of something being wrong, let alone the name of what it might be, has not yet been considered or accepted. In that case, you have an opportunity to focus your disease awareness campaign not on the disease itself per se, but on early-stage symptoms or lifestyle impacts that the disease may have before the patient has even considered the possibility of seeing a doctor or discussing treatment. Put a different way: find the hurdles, the pain points, the gaps in whatever information is available, the exact moments in the patient’s journey when your capacity to inform matches their need to be informed, and focus your efforts there. The end result benefits both the patient and the brand.

The toolbox

Digital technologies such as wearables, mobile and social media are offering marketers a much broader toolbox than ever before for both unbranded and branded campaigns. But all those technologies may actually be more impactful in unbranded programs than in branded, because they fit so neatly around some of the key principles of disease awareness. After all, disease awareness doesn’t just mean knowledge about the disease; if it did, we could just post pages of content about the pathophysiology of Crohn’s or the signs and symptoms of hypercholesterolemia and call it a day. But in our context disease awareness means much more than that. It does mean helping the patient understand the nature of the disease, yes – but it also means offering tools to help that patient overcome whatever hurdles they may face on the path to diagnosis and treatment, and it means showing the patient that they are not alone, that there is a whole community of people out there who are facing or have already faced the same challenges they face and can offer advice and support.

And mobile and social are exquisitely well-suited to those last two hurdles. With mobile apps, we can help patients visualize and give context to what’s happening to their bodies, identify and track symptoms, and compile information for their doctors. With social, we can introduce patients and caregivers to the community of their disease so they can speak with and hear from others who have experienced what they face and lighten the immense emotional weight of facing a life-changing disease alone. On top of that, in a social environment a pharma company can bring its financial and intellectual resources to bear by providing advocates to participate in the community – case workers, social workers, nurses, paid by the company but tasked only with patient support, no brand mentioned. And for clients who fear the regulatory risks of a branded social media commitment, disease awareness offers a much more palatable way to actively participate in, or at least listen to, patient conversations out in the wild.

Pulling through

As noted previously, the first and most universal objective for the marketing success of a disease awareness campaign is as a lead generator. When someone signs up to participate on a disease awareness site, somewhere in the signup process will be an agreement to opt in to any communications from company X. And suddenly you now have a long list of names and emails of individuals self-chosen, as it were, for interest in your brand.

But when planning how to pull these folks through from unbranded to branded communications, beware of impatience. It is quite easy to immediately throw all those new contacts into the maw of your branded communications efforts. It may also be quite wrong. Just because a patient is ready to explore a disease awareness site doesn’t mean he is ready to hear about your brand (although some are) – sometimes quite the opposite. And one of the real opportunities that our advancing digital toolbox offers us as marketers is the capacity to observe, to track, to listen, and even to predict on a more granular level. So with all that in hand, we need to be sure that the decision on when to pull through is not arbitrary, that we’re not just guessing. We need to match up our own knowledge of the patient journey, the hurdles and the pain points and the information needs, with our observations of patient behavior when they are accessing our disease awareness assets, and with our goals for inspiring patient action. When all those components mesh together, then and only then should we be reaching out with branded communications.

Those who teach, learn

The immediate bottom line benefit of encouraging current and potential patients to seek out treatment is one justification for a disease awareness campaign, but it is not the only one. Often lost in the demand for ROI or lead generation is the fact that a brand can learn as much from disease awareness campaign as it can teach, and that that learning has bottom line value too. We all like to talk about knowing our patient and our patient’s journey. What better way exists to learn about that journey than to observe what information or tools that patient is seeking as she moves along the continuum of diagnosis and treatment, what questions she asks the other members of her patient community, what sources she trusts, what she fears and hopes for? Properly executed, a good disease awareness campaign, especially one with strong social and tracking components, can bring all of this to the surface. And understanding the patient community through the overall unbranded landscape can help inform both unbranded and branded strategy.


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