People I meet in advertising always seem to ask: ’What brands do
you work on?’ ’I work in healthcare,’I explain, and before I can say
’Prozac’, I am interrupted by the veracious insight - ’Oh that’s funny
doctors stuff, isn’t it?’ - where ’funny’ does not mean amusing.
This description certainly differs from those found in the consumer
But to understand why this type of advertising exists, you must
understand where it comes from. So here’s a simplified version of
Not so long ago the situation was like this: a pharmaceutical company
invested several hundred million pounds in developing a new
Most new drugs were improvements on their predecessors, so selling the
product was relatively simple - get your sales force to tell doctors
about your new product and they will prescribe it. In fact, the more you
told doctors, the more they would prescribe. And as you could visit
virtually every doctor in the country, the sales force became, not
surprisingly, the main communication tool for the industry. Advertising
was used to maintain awareness of the product after the rep had called.
But what of adding value, changing perceptions, brand positioning, brand
building and and all the other benefits of advertising?
The problem for advertising was that doctors were prescribing medicines
that they neither knew nor had reason to know the price of. The
medicines were being used by the patient and being paid for by a third
party, the NHS.
This has been the key issue for the pharmaceutical marketers - how do
you add value to brands that have no value, except that related to how
well they perform? And why bother any-way because you could virtually
charge whatever you liked for them?
Positioning became synonymous with the symptoms the product was
treating, such as pain or high blood pressure, and, therefore, a
sentence in the rep’s sales pitch rather than something ingrained on the
Today all this has changed. Those bodies around the world that are
responsible for paying for healthcare have decided that the drugs bill
is an easy target in a bid to cut overall costs. There are two
significant consequences of this.
First, market forces have hit GPs. Doctors have now been given financial
responsibility for their practices. This means, like any other service
provider, they have to improve the service they offer (and be nicer) to
their patients or risk losing them (and the income) to other competitor
practices. But, most importantly, it means they are responsible for
prescribing costs. Doctors have to ’pay’ for the drugs they prescribe
and are penalised if they are seen to ’overspend’.
The second consequence is that stock markets and financial institutions
have become interested in how the pharmaceutical industry can maintain
its profitability and thus its share prices. This has resulted in a
series of mergers and takeovers to produce bigger, more profitable
But there is another opportunity for the industry - building brands
which can justify higher prices in a cost-conscious market and which can
have asset value in themselves.
There does seem to be more interest in this approach as increasingly
companies are hiring senior directors responsible for commun-ications.
Some companies are even looking to hire fmcg marketers as part of their
So what does all this mean for advertising?
Sadly, at the moment, the industry continues to feel as if it is making
little difference. But there is a real opportunity for healthcare to use
advertising more effectively - to add value to the medicines that
doctors ’pay’ for and to instil brand awareness in the doctors’ minds.
In particular, most markets, especially the bigger ones, are becoming
very crowded and modern research means that there is little difference
in standard between drugs on the market today. Now, more than ever, the
brief is: ’We’re sixth in the market and we’re exactly the same as all
the other brands.’
Not everyone is at a standstill. Through a well-researched, emotional ad
campaign, sales of Sanofi’s pain killer, Solpadol, have been increasing
by 25 per cent year on year for the past three years (in a
price-sensitive and competitive market) to around pounds 8 million. And
its formulation is easily copied by generic (own-label)
What will the future bring? With next year’s introduction of digital
television, perhaps we could see a development in doctor-specific
broadcasting and a new, more powerful way to advertise to doctors. I
believe, however, that the most significant effect of digital television
will be to bring the Internet to a wider audience. Already Web surfers
can find a plethora of information about medicines. The Internet leaves
them to make their own - potentially dangerous - interpretations about
these medicines based on their own knowledge base.
The most effective way to overcome this will be to allow advertising of
prescription medicines direct to the consumer, as in the US. The
industry can then ensure that consumers receive appropriate information
about the brand. Of course, this will be a highly effective way of
building brands and enhancing sales, but leave it to the Internet and
the industry will pay the price.
Healthcare is encountering some of the most challenging times yet.
Naturally, everyone is looking for an answer; medical education, disease
management and managed care are all great ways to add value, but how
different will they become? In other words, if the industry moves away
from selling drugs to selling services, it will still be forced to add
value through effective communications so that brands can distinguish
themselves from their competitors.
It all comes down to the old adage - it’s not what you say, it’s how you