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Animal Pharm

1 Jun, 2014 By: Pat Cauley Response

“No one believes more firmly than Comrade Napoleon that all animals are equal. He would be only too happy to let you make your decisions for yourselves. But sometimes you might make the wrong decisions, comrades, and then where should we be?” — George Orwell, “Animal Farm”

Of all the existing categories that marketers toil in, perhaps none requires more regulatory obedience and ethical responsibility than pharmaceutical and nutraceutical products. When creating advertising geared toward enhancing consumers’ health and wellness, your campaign’s impact can literally change lives. Plus, when the product and message is spot on, the financial gain can be astounding.

In fact, since 1997 when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued guidance that enabled pharmaceutical companies to more easily advertise to the public, spending on direct-to-consumer ads has nearly quadrupled, according to the Pew Prescription Project. But in such a crowded, competitive space — where one erroneous product claim can bring your entire business down in a heartbeat — it’s vital to have a strong grasp on market happenings and best practices.


“What’s happened during the past decade is that we have a generation of consumers much more insightful, empowered and in control of their own health than ever before,” says Ame Wadler, managing director of Zeno Health, a division of Zeno Group, an award-winning public relations and communications agency. “If you look at it from a demographic perspective, the Boomers are the generation that changed everything. They expect to live long, healthy lives where they’re going to get the best of care at all times. And they expect to have a point of view about the care they’re having.”

Wadler has worked with some of the biggest brands in the health space. She not only led the global PR launch of Lipitor, but also worked on the global PR launch for Claritin, and even Botox Cosmetic. And over the course of her career, she’s certainly observed her share of change.

“A lot of people would say that the biggest change in the pharma industry is learning how to adapt to social media. But, I think that it’s a bigger issue than social media. It’s a generational issue. It is learning how to adapt and engage with a consumer who has always been engaged. And now they have the channels with which to engage and have their voice heard. And that is something that is very new and challenging for all marketers — but mostly for marketers who represent products in a regulated industry, like pharmaceuticals. Because engagement is a two-way street, you run the risk of losing control,” says Wadler.

Social media aside, the digital era has had a profound effect on the pharma and nutraceutical industries in terms of accessibility for competition. “What’s been most surprising for me is how many new players are entering the space. Specifically really small, single product or person companies launching these campaigns online,” says Patrick Carroll, chief marketing officer of Boston-based NutraClick. “Those are popping up all over the place, and we consistently have to compete with them almost to a greater extent than with our large, well-established competitors. The digital advertising landscape has changed so dramatically in the past five years to become much easier and more accessible for anyone with a product or idea to go on and share it with the world and pay for it. For the nutraceutical space, a lot of these smaller competitors don’t last very long, but they’re out there competing with us for media and consumers’ attention.”

Consequently, advertising spending on paid digital media by the U.S. healthcare and pharmaceutical industry was forecasted at $1.18 billion in 2013, and is set to rise to $1.47 billion by 2017, according to an eMarketer report. But like any category, finding success lies in being able to pinpoint and master the nuances of this budding media landscape.

Social Conscience & Consequence

“Recognizing throughout that we’re not dealing with shoppers, but we’re dealing with people is really a critical thing for us to consider as we make decisions about how to engage,” says Wadler. And while she certainly agrees that research matters, it’s also being aware of how people are responding to or hearing information.

“I spend a lot of time on social channels and I always say to people, ‘Google is my friend,’ because by simply plugging in a question that you might want to ask a consumer, you find out all kinds of stuff about how they’re engaging with information. And that helps to shape the programs that we put into place,” Wadler says.

The challenge Wadler’s clients have is being able to engage in the way that they want to when the potential for risk is so high in some of these open platforms. She explained that a lot of times clients have great ideas for social marketing, but they have no way to be able to monitor and engage with it in way that would be acceptable from a regulatory perspective. So, often, they’ll need to pass on those social programs and find another way to do it.

“One of the things we’ve lost because of social media is one of the things that we use to do really efficiently — grass-roots engagement. And I still believe that science is something that happens on an international stage, but health is something happens at a very basic community level. And the more you can engage in communities, whether those are digital communities or real-life communities, the more likely you’re able to promote health,” says Wadler.

The Pharma/Nutra Divide

We’ve all seen the “Saturday Night Live” ad spoofs that poke fun at pharma marketers’ expense. But when consumer health and well being in on the line, blurring the lines with claims is no laughing matter.

Moreover, frequently the pharma marketer’s hands are simply tied. “I think that pharma marketers have it down to a science. There’s so much regulatory language in everything that they communicate that they’re somewhat hampered,” says Wadler.

However, when comparing pharmaceuticals to nutraceuticals, the real difference comes in terms of how marketers are able to approach each.

“The nutraceutical environment is an evolving environment, and I think you really should treat them as different entities because the marketing regulations are different for each,” Wadler says. “Nutraceuticals can say much more and do much more than pharmas typically can. I don’t know how long that will last, but today they can typically say more.”

Yet, nutraceutical companies shouldn’t take it to mean that it’s open season on claims. Just this year the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) levied fines upwards of $26 million against weight-loss product maker SENSA Products LLC for deceptive advertising practices. According to the FTC, the defendants did not have competent and reliable scientific evidence to support their advertising claims.

Wadler asserts that some nutraceutical companies do overinflate the claims they make, doing it in a way that is less about education and more about sensation. “They’re trying to ca

pture that end benefit in a way that’s going to inspire the consumer to do something,” she says. “And that’s great, except the consumer can see through that sort of sensationalized claim. It’s a skeptical consumer out there. They don’t believe the silver bullet messaging. So, what I would urge the nutraceutical companies to do is to spend more time talking about what we know, and what is proven and what the science says in a way that is totally accessible to the consumer.”

However, while many corners of the DR industry have been tainted by fly-by-night corruption, there are certainly smart marketers who play by the rules to ensure long-term credibility and success.

Education vs. Proclamation

“We’re very conservative when it comes to claims,” says Carroll. “We’ll make claims as far as the science allows and not a step further. In addition to legal counsel, we have excellent research and development in-house that make sure what we’re claiming is not going to deceive consumers and is actually supported by hard science.”

Furthermore, Carroll does heed some of Wadler’s sentiment. “Unfortunately, we’re in an industry where people play it really fast and loose. And it’s frustrating to have to compete with them, but we very strongly believe that we’re better positioned than all the companies being very aggressive with claims because that’s a very short-term business play and we’re in this for the long haul,” he says.

When referencing the stringent guidelines that TV marketers face, Carroll explains that it’s really no different when it comes to advertising nutraceuticals online. “The same FTC guidelines apply across channel. And we take ethical advertising very seriously. We’re not interested in deceiving consumers. When we’re running advertorials, it’s done so in a way where we’re disclosing fully to the consumer that it’s an ad,” he says.

Additionally, Wadler stresses never to underestimate your audience. “They’re smarter than you know. Speak to them in simple, clear terms with transparency,” she says.

Likewise, the NutraClick team prides itself on educating consumers. “This is a space where there’s a lot of noise. These products for the most part are ingestible supplements, so consumers already have a heightened awareness and concern as to what they’re putting in their bodies. What a lot of advertisers out there are missing is that consumers really need to be educated,” says Carroll.

He contends that a lot of times marketers will use buzzwords in advertising without realizing that consumers aren’t truly understanding their meaning. He uses ProbioSlim, NutraClick’s probiotic weight-loss supplement, as a prime example of this problematic trend.

“There are companies out there advertising probiotics on TV and online and they’re assuming that consumers know what probiotics are, which isn’t really the case,” says Carroll. “We’ve found that long-form educational content, before we even get to where we’re trying to sell somebody to buy our product, is really beneficial from a direct response standpoint. To actually teach people about the nuances between the different products on the market, to teach people what these products can do for them, for their lives, to benefit their health. I think that’s really missing. A lot of marketers just miss the basics of educating before they sell.”

Clearly, there’s no universal roadmap to claims. “At the end of the day it has to pass your ‘red face’ test. As a marketer, if you can look at your dad and say, ‘Yes, dad, this product does that, and I would be proud for you to take it,’ then you know you haven’t crossed the line. If you can’t say that without turning a little bit red, then you’ve crossed the line,” says Wadler.

Creative Leverage

With claims and education under the belt, the next thing marketers must employ is their storytelling abilities. “We’ve figured out that product claims are a big part of it, but that’s not everything,” says Carroll. “Educating consumers, telling a story, really painting a picture for them about how a product can change their life with all the claims that are totally supported by science — and not having to say extravagant things and sort of race to the bottom when it comes to claims — is something that we’ve learned very well how to do. And, that kind of creativity is something that we use on a daily basis when it comes to positioning and storytelling so that we’re not limited to the conservative claims that we make.”

For Wadler, brands really hit the mark when they’re empathetic rather than preachy. “Whenever a brand recognizes that people are just trying to live their lives in the best way they can and feel the best way they can, and something’s getting in the way — whether they have an allergy, or whether they have erectile dysfunction, or whether they have heart disease — marketers must recognize that they’re just trying to live their lives,” says Wadler.

She recalled an ad for a cardiovascular drug that opens with a man receiving a treatment from his physician, but then he continues throughout his day getting flowers for his wife and surprising her at home with a trip he’s planned. “The drug isn’t making the claim that he can take that trip because of the drug. It’s basically saying that he’s not even thinking of being sick right now,” Wadler says. “His whole focus is on this great surprise he’s going to bring to his wife. And the whole spirit of the ad is very empathetic and excited about this moment when he’s going to reveal this great surprise for her. And, it’s recognition that those are the moments in our lives that we live for. We don’t want to think about being sick. We just want a recognition that, ‘If I don’t have to think about it, if someone else is taking care of me, that’ll be great.’”

Similarly, Wadler praised Tylenol’s recent campaign, “For everything we do, we know you do so much more.” The campaign shows women in all stages of life, from buckling the car seat, putting dinner on the table, working at the office, to playing hide-and-seek with her toddlers. “So, the whole message is, ‘You’ve got their back, we’ve got your back.’ And it’s very empathetic. It recognizes that she is more than just about her back pain or whatever it is,” she says.

On the contrary, Wadler recalls in the past that the model pharma ad always used to be about walking your daughter down the aisle. “Everybody had that. It was almost saying, ‘If you do this, you’ll be able to walk your daughter down the aisle.’ Or, there was always an older couple walking on the beach because apparently that’s what older couples do,” she says. “And, to me, that misses out on the everyday human moments. Not those milestones, but every day human moments are really where we put our energy and time. When marketers capture that, they capture us.” ■

About the Author: Pat Cauley

Pat Cauley

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