Published in Mar-Apr 2021
Unlike other ‘sexier’ industries like FMCGs or telcos, pharmaceuticals and the healthcare business do not usually get a lot of admiration from marketing types like us. A major reason could be that we cannot plaster a seductive picture of Mahira Khan holding up a bottle or blister pack of whatever and call it a day. Or maybe it is because it’s hard to get budget approvals for overproduced emotional tearjerkers or dance numbers when you are working in this field.
Yet, underneath it all lies the inherent fear advertisers have of working with such a regulated industry; we hate the constraint. Our usual bag of tricks will not work here. Massive medicinal brands can end up competing with, and sometimes coexisting with, generics. In other words, up is down in this Rs 500 billion industry – and honestly, most of us don’t know how to tackle it.
At the heart of it all is the relatively well-defined target audience persona that most pharma marketing is geared towards – the healthcare professional (HCP). That is fancy talk for doctor, nurse, pharmacist, or whomsoever is the gatekeeper to making decisions on endorsing one product over another. The end consumer may be the one buying and popping the pills, but it is the HCP who determines what is consumed. To pharmaceuticals, the RX pad is worth its weight in gold.
When Ishtehari made the first foray into healthcare marketing, we also had a similarly closed mindset. We stereotyped the HCP to be a conservative, straight-to-business sort of person, operating on rationality alone. Suffice it to say, we were quickly set straight by our counterparts on the pharma brand side. It was only when we began to see the doctor for the human that s/he is, that we began to understand their particular worldview.
We quickly realised that behind even the most conformist HCP and the most conservative patient is a human being yearning for engagement. This is where we tried to excel. Our guiding principle morphed to look beyond the traditional way of doing things and develop an idea worth the rarest of things – human attention.
It was a long shot, but it started to show dividends. Over the last few years, we have managed to work extensively with giants in the Pakistani healthcare space, such as Abbott, Bayer, Getz, GSK and Martin Dow. We have even undertaken public health projects for Johns Hopkins, Marie Stopes Society and DKT.
Along the way, we began to see that the HCP has a strictly regimented routine; a noble cause plagued by monotony. Any break that we could offer them from their regular lives seemed to be welcome. We needed to engage them intellectually and entertain cautiously.
Sure, we do not have the usual mediums to work with, but we began focusing on what we did have; access to their immediate surroundings. Whether it is the doctor’s private chambers, the waiting room, or the symposiums they attend – we needed to hook them and provide actual value, rather than just a pushing product.
To be honest, the product was hard to push anyway. Imagine trying to increase share of mind for a drug that has been around 30 years and pretty much unchanged for decades. Now, throw in a generic, cheaper drug in the mix – the makers of which will conveniently entice HCPs with free international tours and random gifts to cement their position in the prescription pecking order.
To combat this, we learnt to rely on storytelling. To illustrate: one of the brands we have been working on with a multiyear strategy is indicated for typhoid. Not exactly the most exciting of elements to be working with, right? We did some primary research and found medical journal insights that proposed that one of the suspected causes of Alexander the Great’s death was typhoid. We piggybacked from that foundation to create an entire interactive storyline around Alexander. To add a bit of drama, we contrasted Alexander’s triumphs and legendary invincibility to the fact that his deadliest foe was no man, but a disease for which a cure had not yet been discovered. Imagine the world today if he had not suddenly died when he did. Would we now be in Pakistan or Alexandria?
In this example, we helped doctors take a journey via rich media (audio, video and immersive experiences) through the life and times of Alexander; making them feel as if the great warrior was sitting in their waiting room keen to be diagnosed. We created everything from board games to full-fledged events, all in an attempt to break the hectic humdrum of a doctor’s life, with some medically relevant infotainment.
With this and every other project we have undertaken for healthcare companies, there is the constant threat of violating government mandated regulatory restrictions and the multinational’s pharmacovigilance guidelines. Everything has to be strictly above board. It wasn’t just lip service either. We did lose one of our consumer facing pharma brands because the answer we gave to a social media query was not worded according to set SOPs. It is nerve-wracking work, but undoubtedly exciting if you put your heart into it.
On the other end of the spectrum, there is the inherent distrust the HCP community has against overly direct marketing, especially in the case of pharma based brands that are becoming more consumer led. Here, we have to be careful not to antagonise the doctors; advertising is sometimes considered to be crass and the medical community will stop prescribing a brand if they feel it is being pushed with pomp and flair on media, alternative or mainstream.
At the risk of oversimplifying this rather nuanced branch of marketing, I will say this. The key to unlocking the true potential of pharmaceutical brands lies in having an intimate understanding of the HCP. They want to be engaged, but they have little time to give. They want to be supported, but the line between support and patronising is thin. They respond to storytelling, as long as there is a subtlety to it.
There are few reputable agencies in Pakistan that pay attention to the healthcare sector, much to their disadvantage. This healthcare marketing industry is moving away from giveaways and conferences and is ripe for smart, strategic marketing that can convince the toughest of decision-makers – doctors and health staff.
It’s a bitter pill to swallow at first, but go through the entire course and you will be right as rain.
Umair Kazi is Partner, Ishtehari.