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Iconic Ads Can Teach Pharma How to Be EPIC

Sarah Morgan

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“Don’t Leave Home Without It.”
“The Most Interesting Man in the World.”
“Reach Out and Touch Someone.”

Even if you weren’t a marketer, you’d probably still know those phrases and their associated brands. The best advertising becomes part of pop culture.

Rx and OTC brands rarely enter the zeitgeist. Sometimes they become memorable for the wrong reasons. The Vicks “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV” ad has been a punch line since it first aired more than 30 years ago. And the side-effect lists that Rx ads must contain are an easy joke for any comedian. Some brands’ marketing does stay with us, though. For instance, Zoloft’s sad blob and the Cialis bathtubs are two visuals most of us can immediately call to mind.

Our industry is different from consumer package goods in crucial ways. We have regulations and restrictions, black boxes and fair balance, and often far smaller marketing budgets. We have harder waters to sail, and a smaller boat to navigate them.

The brands we work on can truly change and save lives, which is a far more arresting story than any that the most heartstring-tugging Procter & Gamble campaign could tell. Our stakes are higher than anyone else’s.

As different as we are, though, we can still learn from the greatest ad campaigns. From De Beers’ “A Diamond Is Forever” – which created an entire industry in 1948 – to Nike’s “Just Do It” in 1988, we can see that the best marketing campaigns are epic.

Pharma can learn to be EPIC, too:

Since many brand teams rotate regularly, it’s very tempting to turn over the marketing with the personnel. However, creativity should be tempered with judgment. Apple’s board of directors tried to have their legendary “1984” campaign cancelled, but gave the marketing team a standing ovation after they were proven wrong. GE told you, “We bring good things to life,” from 1979 to 2003. Smokey the Bear has been entreating you to prevent forest fires since 1944. You need to give a good idea time to succeed. And you need to go through a lot of bad ideas to find a good one. Practice patience.

Almost without fail, the best ads are cheerful. Even when they are antagonistic – like the Apple “Mac and PC” campaign that pitted a shlumpy-looking IBM against a hip young Mac – they have a sweetness that keeps them from being mean. Political campaign ads are reviled because they almost always make you unhappy. Great marketing makes you feel good, whether it’s cute, quirky, empowering or loving.

When I was in high school, the trend was to hang Absolut vodka ads in your locker. I didn’t know about the relative merits of different vodkas. I just knew the ads looked awesome. That campaign ran for 25 years and became so well-known that the ads often needed nothing but the merest suggestion of a bottle shape. Whether it’s artistic or blunt, graphic or video or text, great marketing is arresting: it catches your eye and holds it.

When you remember a campaign, but not what it was advertising, that’s not a great sign. In the end, marketing isn’t about popularity or inventiveness but sales. When Old Spice’s “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” ad got 54 million views on YouTube, that was noteworthy. But when it made sales of Old Spice skyrocket, that was success. Good marketing drives action.

We often assume that there’s little for pharma marketers to learn from the consumer package goods industry. But the best campaigns share similar characteristics, no matter what industry they’re in. We can all make our brands EPIC.


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