TL;DR: Authenticity is a popular 21st-century marketing buzzword. But when you pick apart what’s really behind that, you find new opportunities for pharma marketers.

Authenticity, transparency, humanity, vulnerability – there are a lot of ways to describe what the public increasingly wants from brands. But simply put: they want to know there are people behind the brands. Regular, emotional people who understand the emotion of the people they’re trying to talk to.

It can feel like a difficult balance to strike. Is it really possible to remain professional and trustworthy while showing humor or sadness? Especially in our regulated industry where the accuracy of our information can be, very literally, a matter of life or death?

It turns out that it is.

  • Stupid Cancer is the world’s largest young adult cancer community – a serious mission by anyone’s reckoning. But their name, their tagline (“We make young adult cancer suck less”) and their website’s introduction (“welcome to the club you didn’t ask to join. we know you’re pissed. and that’s OK. we’ve been there, too. we connect you with your community and strive to make it all suck a little less.”) all speak to their authenticity.
  • The Sickboy podcast was the brainchild of three friends, one of whom has cystic fibrosis. More than three years, a million downloads, and 175 episodes later, they say, “The beauty of Sickboy lies not only in our capacity to find laughter and lightness in tough topics and conversations but in the guests who bring their unique story to you.”
  • Acadia Pharmaceuticals’ “Secret Visitors” ad brings light (metaphorically and visually) to the fact that half of patients with Parkinson’s experience hallucinations.

As you’ll note, these examples run the gamut of emotion. They’re sassy and sad, funny and angry. Just as it’s important for pharma marketers not to overly simplify information, it’s also important not to strip the complex feelings away from subjects that are necessarily extremely emotional. Because health is often one of the most emotional topics. Conversations about health can be full of fear and sadness, or joy and happiness.

Often, our need to find carefully chosen, medically precise, MRL-approved language may lead us to assume that pharma marketers can only speak an odd hybrid between legalese and medicalese that assumes a sterile tone. But a topic so fundamental to our lives is rarely without emotion.

In this era of increasing skepticism about all sources of information, brands must know that a good catchphrase isn’t enough. It’s important to not just demonstrate that you know. It’s important to show that you understand.

We can see how important it is to walk the talk across industries. Even in high fashion, not always considered a bastion of solemnity, demonstrating action is proving profitable. A new company, RAD, liaises between celebrities, fashion designers and charities to negotiate charitable donations in exchange for stars wearing a brand’s clothing to an event. This business model works because of this increasing interest in going beyond the superficial.

And understanding audiences and speaking to them authentically can make a difference. Campaigns like Be the Match’s “The Hero Gene” have found ways to make people’s lighter interests jibe with their fundamental motivations. We all walk out of the latest Marvel movie wishing we had superpowers – but perhaps nobody feels that way as much as Comic-Con attendees, who are known for their attention to detail in cosplaying their favorite characters. What better moment to remind people that they have the ability to truly save a life?

As pharma marketers, we place great importance on our ability to provide clinicians, patients, families and the public with the most up-to-date, precise information about our brands and the diseases they treat. But that shouldn’t prevent us from talking to those humans like the humans we are. We can be respected sources – and still be understanding and authentic.