Make the Patient the Hero — and the Director

I make my living thinking about patient-centric marketing. As non-pharma marketers have known for decades, the key to effective advertising is to make the product or the brand the star. Think, for example, of the Jack-in-the-Box fast food chain. Their advertising features a walking, talking, suit-wearing character who actually is the brand — Jack.

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Effective pharma marketers need to go one better. You can’t, for obvious reasons, make the product the star, although AstraZeneca’s Nexium DTC campaign did as good a job as possible. Even the website is branded — www.thepurplepill.com.

Instead, you must make the patient the star of the campaign. The campaign must be about the patient’s experience, symptoms and issues, and the campaign absolutely must reflect those issues in as objective a manner as possible. A recent, exceptionally effective example of this was the marketing thinking behind Merck’s HPV vaccine Gardasil.

The website for the vaccine isn’t particularly good. However, the DTC advertising, particularly the commercials, are fantastic. Not only do they make the patient — in this case, adolescent girls and young women — the star — but the ads themselves are shot and produced in a way that not only makes them about the patient, but they seem to be created by the patient.

This is tremendous Web 2.0 strategy. Patients in this age group are increasingly familiar with all the vehicles for creating content themselves — Facebook, Youtube, MySpace, and so on. While some ads depict members of this group asking questions about the vaccine, answering questions, and so on, one actually seems to have been created, including voiceover, by a patient. This ad is presented as a kind of documentary, in which the student who appears in the video mentions her friend "Steven" who she asked to help her make the short film. In this one, young girls talk about the virus and the vaccine, and and at one point, refer to one another’s statements, as if they’re all participating in the project.

Both commercials are shot in the herky-jerky style of home videos, complete with natural lighting and occasional mistakes. They’re extraordinarily effective, because not only do they create a relationship, they assume one. Patient-centric marketing, in this campaign, has been transformed into patient-created marketing.

And this campaign was incredibly effective. Part of it, of course, was the political debate around the vaccine. But much of it was the impact of just plain effective DTC marketing. The spots in this campaign were highly nuanced advertising conveying subtly different, compatible messages at young women and girls versus mothers as adults and medical decision makers. The campaign messages were built on empathy, peer influence and the women’s emotional connection to one another. The result was a powerful word-of-mouth campaign based on womens’ real relationships. In assessing the campaign’s impact, one ObGyn said she had never before seen any pharma campaign drive nearly 100% of her patients to ask about a product.