What You Can Learn From Pharmaceutical Advertising

25 Mar

A Dose of Insight From Someone Who Markets to Brain Surgeons by Chris Runge
Published: December 16, 2010
Chris Runge is exec VP-managing partner and creative director-copy at Concentric Pharma Advertising. He has more than 14 years of experience in pharmaceutical advertising. During that time, he’s worked in both professional advertising and consumer advertising on products as diverse as Ben Gay (he wrote their TV spots once upon a time) and Avastin. He has extensive specialty experience in the fields of oncology, infectious disease (viral and bacterial), endocrinology, gastroenterology, neurology and psychiatry.

You’re a consumer guy. I’m a pharma guy. We live in different worlds, right?

In my world, a Bud Light ad goes: “Easily titrated to effective levels in plasma! Predictable dose response! Effectively crosses the blood-brain barrier!” And it has warnings, of course.

So what can you learn from me?

Well, have you noticed that the quality of information required to sell effectively has skyrocketed? (I’m looking at you, TSA communication geniuses! You, too, BP PR people! And I’m shaking my head.)

In today’s world, you can get on the web, and you can talk about your experience of the brand and your opinion of the quality of its claims. The emergent property of thousands of people doing this, every day, on almost every brand in the world is this kind of meta fact-checker. And that fact-checker is out there on the internet for everyone to access — and she has a very low tolerance for shoddy information presented in an authoritarian way.

In other words, the company scientist just won’t do it anymore.

And that’s my world. We sell to highly educated consumers (actual brain surgeons) who talk to each other about the products we sell and are very, very critical of our messages and demand the very highest-quality information.

And here are some things I’ve learned about communicating to the highly critical consumer:

1. Be real. When we were working on Betaseron, (an immune-system modulator that’s used to treat multiple sclerosis) we found that neurologists that treat MS often delayed therapy, thinking they’d spare the patient the side effects of taking Betaseron. Instead, physicians tended to use our competitors, who — predictably — made a lot of noise about our side effects.

But we could prove we worked really well if we were used early. So we said to our customers, “We’re about treating MS aggressively. We have some adverse events. But if you’re about treating MS, you should really think about using us.” We were up front about our limitations. We said we were strong medicine. And strong medicine was worth using early. What we didn’t try to say was, “We’re for every patient. Don’t worry about side effects.”

And our customers rewarded us for it. Betaseron market share grew 15% in the first year of the campaign and sales increased 10% to $60 million. Betaseron began to be perceived (according to message-recall research) as the most effective MS therapy on the market. Very quickly, it was first in new-patient starts.

2. Add (real) value. We recently launched Xifaxan550 for an obscure but very dangerous and frustrating-to-treat condition called hepatic encephalopathy. People get it when their livers fail.

While we were doing market research we discovered that target physicians were focused on treating the liver failure that creates HE — not the HE itself. They just didn’t have time to make sure the patient was taking his HE medication as directed.

That gave us an idea: A program that would act like extra staff for the doctor — focused specifically on supporting patients with HE.

We called the program HELP — the HE Living Program. It’s a free service run by the manufacturers of Xifaxan550, and anyone with hepatic encephalopathy can join. Once they’re in the program, they get education materials, co-pay assistance, help staying on their medication, and access to a 24-hour, toll-free hotline.

So far, HELP has been a roaring success — we launched the program in April and to date almost 3,000 physicians (out of around 12,000 targets) have signed up — because we’re offering a service that the customer wants.

3. Know to whom you’re talking. This is so simple that I’m amazed you’re still reading. (Thanks.) It’s a little more subtle than it sounds. When you’re selling with science, it’s pretty tempting to just show the data and say, “See?” Because doctor’s a doctor, right?


What people often miss is that different customers want to know different things about your product.

We were just awarded a major immunology brand. And in talking to their customers, we’re learning that there are huge differences in how physicians (who look exactly the same on paper) view our data. Needless to say, it’s something we feel we have to pay very close attention to.

And in about six months, you can call me and I’ll bore you to tears with what we actually did.

Selling to brain surgeons (and other specialist physicians) isn’t brain surgery. It’s pretty simple, actually. But it’s rooted in pretty universal truths all marketers can learn from: If you’re just honest about your data and add real value for customers, you can build loyalty and even advocacy among the most sophisticated and critical consumers.

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