CAMPAIGN REPORT ON HEALTHCARE: What it’s like in ethical advertising. As GPs take on financial responsibility for practices, advertising must find more effective ways of heightening their awareness of medical brands, Mark Goldstone says

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.

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

doctor’s mind.

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

say it.

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