Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

A prescription for creativity

Published in Mar-Apr 2017

The challenges of branding medicines and pharmaceutical companies.
Illustration by Creative Unit.
Illustration by Creative Unit.

If you walk towards the consultants’ room at the National Medical Center in Karachi, you will see an A4-sized sign on top of the reception desk that says: “Medical representatives not allowed on this floor.” Despite the fact that it is there, it feels like an afterthought.

This scene captures the relationship between the healthcare industry (and I choose my words carefully here) and the advertising and marketing industry. In the world of pharmaceuticals and healthcare, marketers are unwelcome, but necessary guests; shackled by rules and regulations, constantly under threat of being labelled a corrupting influence, but never truly considered a threat that deserves to be escorted off the premises.

There are over 650 pharmaceutical companies operating in Pakistan and with projected market growth rates hovering around 13%, new players pop up every few years. While these companies have the business side of things covered, they still require the services of creative agencies to craft an identity for their business.

Defining the master identity

Corporate identity development is something that every creative agency in Pakistan will claim to be an expert in; yet creating such an identity for a pharmaceutical company is no walk in the park. It is difficult to balance the sobriety that is expected with the differentiation required to create a memorable brand. Good luck creating a logo that looks as amazing when printed in two colours on a 5 x 5mm ampoule as it does when seen on a 20-foot wall at the factory’s reception. The brand manual needs to clearly define the tone, so that all communication by the company is predictable and protected from unexpected flak. Every pixel on the website is a lawsuit waiting to happen, so you have to plan your creative strategy very carefully.

Naming the products

The learning curve involved in naming medical brands becomes steeper as you move away from over-the-counter to prescription drugs. All drugs have at least three names; the chemical name, the generic name, and the brand name – and agencies develop brand names from generic names, while juggling drug registration considerations. Take Tenofovir Disoproxil Fumarate as an example. This is a drug used to treat HIV and Chronic Hepatitis B Virus (HBV). The chemical name is ({[(2R)-1-(6-amino-9H-purin-9-yl) propan-2-yl]oxy}methyl) phosphonic acid. Imagine reading this from a doctor’s handwritten prescription note. Much easier to write and remember Tenofo-B, which is the brand name Getz Pharma uses for their version of this drug. Try explaining that to your copywriter.

What’s in the box?

Next up is the packaging. One of the basic lessons in packaging design is to understand the environment the products exist in. In our case, the products will be crammed between 17 different medicines of a similar kind, stuffed in a glass cabinet in the pharmacy. Or they will be locked in a supplies cabinet at the hospital. Picture these situations in your head and you have an inkling about the challenges a creative agency faces when working on pharmaceutical package design. Never mind the odd sizes and the limited print estate, the templates have to reflect the company design language, range (ocular, derma, respiratory, the list goes on...), and product group and SKUs. All these need to be connected so that they look like part of a family, yet distinct enough to have their own identity. Then there is something called the ‘Looks alike, sounds alike’ dilemma. This is what happens when in a stressful hospital environment a lot of the medication starts to look the same and is prone to maladministration by overworked nurses. Our design teams have to consciously add elements, colours, and other differentiators to product packages and labels so that the incidence of such mistakes is reduced.

Know your audience

The primary audience for almost all pharmaceutical products is the doctor who is likely to know as much about what is in the product and what it does, as the manufacturers of the drug themselves do. What is more, you cannot target a doctor’s psychographic profile because the product isn’t really for him or her. This puts brands in a uniquely difficult situation where they have little differentiation, their target audience is not easily won by rhetoric alone, and they are not allowed the bells and whistles of mass media. The bag of tricks that agencies usually pull their material from is largely useless in such situations, so creative agencies often have to think of other solutions.

Chasing engagement

The de-facto method for engaging doctors is through case studies; hypothetical patient situations where a doctor is encouraged to diagnose the problem. These case studies manifest themselves in the form of detail aids (pharma’s equivalent of a brochure). However, despite their exalted responsibilities, doctors are, in fact, human. This makes them susceptible to message fatigue; they are hounded by pharmaceutical companies trying to win them over by engaging them in such case studies in an attempt to become their brand of recommendation when they write a prescription. In the late 90s, pharmaceutical companies even started giving out prescription pads with their brand name printed on them in an attempt to boost prescription rates. It didn’t work too well.

Thinking laterally

Our agency was tasked by a leading pharmaceutical company to increase doctor recall for a medication that cured typhoid. We dug down into history and found the perfect case study: Alexander the Great. Turns out, Alexander finally met his end when he succumbed to typhoid. Once the conceptual angle was in place, the rest was easier to crack. Alexander’s men would appear in person at various doctor gatherings and ask them to diagnose their leader’s illness. Every quarter, a new piece of Alexander’s story would unfold in the brand’s detail aids. Thematic videos showcased the fact that despite all the foes Alexander conquered (Greek mercenaries, Egyptian warriors, Persian kings or Indian badshahs) there was one battle where his opponent overcame him; and this opponent was typhoid. Every interaction with the doctor was thematic, and they loved being part of a grand narrative.

Use of technology

The role of a creative agency is to push the boundaries. Just because it’s not mainstream marketing, doesn’t mean that new technology can be overlooked. I’m happy to report that progressive pharmaceutical companies make full use of new methods in order to grab the attention of their high-functioning audiences. Imagine if, through Virtual Reality (VR) glasses, we could show a doctor what exactly it feels like to be crippled by the fear of an allergy attack. Imagine a version of Siri that helps patients recognise their symptoms, and then they are matched to a doctor who specialises in that area of medicine. Imagine using Augmented Reality (AR) to create a virtual story that the doctor will actually want to watch. The possibilities are endless.

Globally, healthcare advertising is a specialty branch that almost all the major networks are gravitating towards. In Pakistan, however, because pharmaceuticals do not have the same glamour that is associated with brands from the FMCG and services sector, such companies are never on the agency’s dream list. Factor in procurement departments that are largely unaware of creative processes and man-hours, and this becomes extremely difficult for agencies looking to break new ground in this field. However, having worked for no fewer than six of the biggest pharmaceuticals in Pakistan, I can attest to the fact that it is exciting work. The doctor is in!

Umair Kazi is Partner, Ishtehari.