Prescribing emotion: how to win hearts and minds in healthcare
A view from Frankie Everson

Prescribing emotion: how to win hearts and minds in healthcare

It’s widely recognised in consumer advertising that emotionally driven communications are the best way to capture the hearts and minds of our audiences. But does this still apply in the world of healthcare marketing?

“Doctors use drugs solely based on clinical data. Emotion isn’t relevant.”

This statement (and variations of it) still regularly does the rounds in pharmaceutical and medical circles. There’s a baked-in belief that if the clinical data for a drug is good enough, doctors will use it; science alone should provide a sufficiently convincing argument, without needing to explain why it’s relevant from a more emotive point of view. 

But this simply isn’t true. 

All too often, we forget that doctors are humans too. We expect them to make perfect treatment decisions, based on perfect patient profiles, and to be fully updated on every new piece of information available. We expect them to make purely rational decisions based on cold, hard facts. But of course, this isn’t actually the case. 

They may be doctors, but they are also mothers and fathers, children and grandchildren. Many may even be patients themselves. Just like the rest of us, they cry in movies and are moved by the opening of Pixar’s Up. Their responses aren’t always logical, and their decisions are often driven by gut feelings or subconscious emotional reactions based on past experiences. 

It’s widely recognised in consumer advertising that emotionally driven communications are the best way to capture the hearts and minds of our audiences, but the same principle is often neglected in the world of healthcare marketing. However, in a world where healthcare systems are under more pressure than ever, powerful communications in the world of pharma should not be underestimated. 

Many of you will be familiar with Kahneman’s “System 1” theory: the idea that 80-90% of our decision making is based on subconscious factors (system 1) rather than a rational evaluation of the evidence before us (system 2). Essentially, it’s an evolutionary feature that helps us make decisions without having to constantly process new information.

Since doctors need to make huge, potentially life-changing decisions every day, they actually rely on system 1 thinking quite heavily. They’re also confronted with immense (and growing) amounts of data: thanks to the internet, the amount of medical information available to doctors doubles every 73 days. To evaluate it all, doctors would need 627.5 hours each month. That’s almost every waking (and sleeping) hour. This intense pressure has been further exacerbated by the pandemic, with many doctors required to run Covid clinics and operate vaccination programmes on top of their day job. 

To operate at the pace required of them, doctors rely on habit and familiarity to guide their treatment choices. It’s why you might ask three oncologists the same question about the best treatment approach for a particular cancer patient, and get three wildly different answers. It can completely depend on their own personal experiences.

It’s also why, even if data shows a new drug is better at treating a specific condition than existing ones, these raw facts may not be enough to change a doctor’s mindset after years of habitual prescribing. Much like in the consumer world, there will be early adopters, but there will also be those who wait for months or years to try a new drug, even if the data appears to be streets ahead of others.

Ultimately, we can’t change how medical professionals behave simply with scientific facts. Marketers need to do something to get doctors’ attention and captivate them on a deeper level, helping them understand not just the details around efficacy and safety, but what these truly mean for them and their patients. We need to hack system 1. 

This is where powerful communications can make an enormous difference. By sparking emotion, we speak to their subconscious beliefs and triggers. It doesn’t matter what kind of emotion we stir – fear, joy, excitement or humour – as long as it grabs their attention in a sea of sameness of comms, which they’ve grown accustomed to ignoring. Emotion can make them think differently about a topic that they thought they knew inside out. 

Clinical data is still important, of course. The detail – the part which will be processed by “system 2”, the side of our brain that consciously analyses new information – will ultimately help to provide the necessary credibility to tip the balance. However, we need to remember that emotion acts as the gateway.

A well-known example in the industry comes from an erectile dysfunction drug: Cialis. Back in the early 2000s, Pfizer’s Viagra was dominating the market, with close to $1.5bn of annual sales. When Eli Lilly’s Cialis launched around 2003, it was the first drug in the category with a genuine point of difference: it lasted for 36 hours, rather than four to five like Viagra and other competitors. 

However, at the time of launch, duration wasn’t considered by doctors to be nearly as important as efficacy and safety. For the product to be successful, Eli Lilly needed to find a way to get this duration on their radar as a criterion, and clearly, it needed to do more than just tell doctors how long it lasted. 

It ran some market research to figure out how best to position this drug, and the results were incredibly revealing: “Viagra users who had been informed of the attributes of both drugs were given a stack of objects and asked to sort them into two groups, one for Viagra and the other for Cialis. Red lace teddies, stiletto-heeled shoes and champagne glasses were assigned to Viagra, while fluffy bathrobes and down pillows belonged to Cialis.”

It became clear that while Viagra was associated with sex, Cialis was associated with intimacy. From there, the advertising campaign wrote itself: positioning Cialis in the context of love and romance, instead of lust.  

By 2012, Cialis had surpassed Viagra’s annual sales, and duration had taken the top spot over efficacy in terms of doctors’ perceived most important criteria. All thanks to a marketing strategy that put emotion over clinical data.   

So, the next time somebody tries to argue that powerful, emotive advertising is pointless in pharma, remind them that doctors are humans too. They make many decisions based on instinct and not logic. It takes more than cold, hard data to truly capture their attention and, more importantly, their hearts and minds. 

Frankie Everson is a strategy director at BBH

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