It’s All In How You Frame It

Before you even begin marketing, you first need to think about how you're going to frame what you're doing. Given the perfect storm of regulation that seems to be hitting, with Federal regulation on DTC pharma marketing tightening up, and pharma sales beginning to decline, it is seeming to make sense that pharma companies should begin by framing themselves as partners in a relationship from the beginnning. This very important point was made by Guy Kawasaki a couple of days ago in his blog, in a post entitled Frame or Be Framed.

Kawasaki writes about the current political landscape, and dissects how the Republican Party is framing itself with respect to the current financial crisis. In an interview, George Lakoff, a Berkeley linguist and expert on framing we've written about previously, describes the current situation as follows:

Language always comes with what is called “framing.” Every word is
defined relative to a conceptual framework. If you have something like
“revolt,” that implies a population that is being ruled unfairly, or
assumes it is being ruled unfairly, and that they are throwing off
their rulers, which would be considered a good thing. That’s a frame.

If you then add the word “voter” in front of “revolt,” you get a
metaphorical meaning saying that the voters are the oppressed people,
the governor is the oppressive ruler, that they have ousted him and
this is a good thing and all things are good now. All of that comes up
when you see a headline like “voter revolt”—something that most people
read and never notice. But these things can be affected by reporters
and very often, by the campaign people themselves

This is a point that a lot of pharma companies might be well-advised to keep in mind in their marketing. Most DTC advertising frames the patient and the sufferer, and the drug, or drug company, as the outsider who comes in to make things better. The classic example that springs to mind is the glowing Lunesta moth that literally flies into the patient's room at night, settles down on him, and eases him to sleep. Literally, all the patient does is lie there. The patient is not depicted as playing any active role in the situation at all. It might make a whole lot more sense for these companies to depitct themselves as long-term partners rather than outside solutions.

Some health-related companies, such as Kaiser Permanente, already have adopted this tactic. Kaiser has a long-running radio campaign featuring Alison Janney, formerly of the television series West Wing, taking about the day-to-day role things like eating right and exercising play in long-term good health. In these spots, Kaiser is positioned as the patient's partner, working together with the patient over the long haul to help them be as healthy as possible.

If you are marketing a drug that's intended to be used by patients with long-term, chronic conditions, such as diabetes or hypertension, you are, in effect, the patient's long-term partner. Over the months and years to come, the patient is going to help himself stay healthy by taking the drug, and making whatever lifestyle modifications are necessary to stay healthy and strong. All the different elements of the program work together, and the drug company should depict itself in that context. And it should do this right from the start. From the instant the patient picks up the first piece of literature, or visits the website for the first time, the words, images and concepts these marketing vehicles convey must consistently communicate the concept that the patient and the pharma company are working together, and that they will continue to do so for a long time to come.

Online Innovation Is Beginning To Take Hold

Pharma and biotech online marketing is probably 2-4 years behind consumer online marketing, and for a lot of good, rational reasons. The category lends itself less well to online because it's so heavily regulated, and because the subject matter is so complex, and frequently very serious. However, as consumer online marketing grows increasingly sophisticated and widely adopted, the online gap between pharma and everyone else keeps widening.

Thankfully, some pharma marketers are finding new rationales for embracing more engaging Web experiences, more equal to what consumers experience in the mass market e-commerce and information surfing they do.  Not being my clients, I cannot tell you why they chose to innovate, but at least let’s give praise where it is due, and learn what we can.

The most important word that I used that pharma needs to embrace, as have the  mutli-billion dollar consumer brands, is “Engagement.” The dictionary definition of "engaged" is "busy, employed or occupied." For a website, this means that it gets visitors to do something — the move around inside the site, try things, respond. These visitors are not passive readers of online brochures — they use the site, which vastly strengthens their connection to the brand. For a website to accomplish this, it needs to be super-relevant, fun, easy to use, and rewarding.

As an example, two truly innovative consumer sites recently were done by our agency for two different clients: Lufthansa Airlines, the flag carrier of Germany and the largest airline in Europe, and Callaway Golf, one of the world's most widely-known brands of golf equipment.

Both of these sites make extensive use of short interactive videos. Each video is shot and edited to reflect the attributes of the particular brand — the Lufthansa videos have a cool, clean, professoinal feel, designed to appeal to international business travelers. The Callaway Golf series, which features real golfers playing and talking about their real games, has a more intimate, up-close-and-personal quality.

Mead Fivestar Notebooks: This is another Ryan iDirect site. I include this one because the target audience is the one group hardest to engage with – teens – and this site makes a notebook fun. Great insight, engagement and use of tools, rewards and video.

Next, check out My Postit Secret.  The use of green-screen video shot with 3D animation tools created a highly interactive “real” environment for the site visitor to move within. It's video game technology applied to business. The characters represent key marketing segments and this site allows you to self-select and interact in an amazing way. Remember, we’re talking about POST-IT NOTES! They made them engaging. This site is a year old and has surpassed all metrics and helped build the client database dramatically: 

The ast site is not a Ryan creation, but just a great e-commerce site built by Virgin America Airlines. You have to click on the "See our Difference". The site is tremendously interactive, but also fast, useful, and fun.

After visitng such rich Web experiences,  their pharma equivalents can be a bit disappointing. Well, even the Web experiences have recently culled from pharma are mid-range quality in a broader consumer universe, but they stand out and differentiate the brand through the experience they create in the world of pharma.

Diabetes devices companies occupy that strange land between pharma and consumer goods. The One Touch Diabetes site is great for its "experience", its use of patients stories for credibility, and a cause related link…all lined up to associate with their colorful products. Very smart.

Novartis deserves kudos for starting to figure out how to use video to engage without being imposing and too controlling. The company does so with its new drug for osteoporosis, Reclast, and its unbranded site. To get the full marketing experience, you have to go to, register for the free book and then go to 

This site has excellent parallel branding. Also, their use of  experts touches on findings from our very own Patient Power Study. The site taps into real experts, a doctor for advice, and Rhonda, your sire organizer, is a great value-add – she should have more real estate on the home page. This may be the best unbranded site today. But I am always looking for more.

Has the corner turned? Is "Engagement" seeping its way into the pharma/biotech list of metrics? The potential is amazing, and it's just beginning to be tapped. Now this is a topic worth more discussion!


Eggs, meet baskets

A few weeks ago my uncle sent me the piece below.It's from an organization called the Alliance for Retired Americans, a Washington lobbying group that, as its name implies, advocates on behalf of the elderly and retired. Whether or not this piece is a factually accurate prediction, it's pretty clear that at least some of what it describes is going to happen:

Democrats Hope to Target Drug Companies in 2009 

Democrats are planning a series of curbs on the pharmaceutical industry in 2009, the political newspaperRoll Call reported this week.  Party leaders and staff on Capitol Hill are preparing an ambitious agenda should the Democrats win the White House and increase their majorities in the both the House and Senate. Roll Call said
that this would include requiring Medicare to negotiate bulk discounts
on drug prices, allow re-importation of drugs from Canada, limit direct marketing
to consumers, and expand companies' legal liability for their
products.  In the current session of Congress, the House adopted a bill
on Medicare price negotiation, but it was blocked in the Senate by a
Republican filibuster and a White House veto threat.  Senator Barack Obama voted in favor of the bill, while Senator John McCain did not vote.  "Seniors have a lot riding on the 2008 elections," said Edward F. Coyle,
Executive Director of the Alliance.  "Victories by the right candidates
could put an end to drug companies' hold on many policymakers."

As pharma marketers, how do we respond to this? Should we all be worried? Should we be planning "scenarios" for alternative marketing? Should we make outreach and develop guidelines (again) around DTC and make it what it could be — the most responsible form of advertising it is, supporting and educating patients. Should we, could we, must we…

My answer? It's a cliche, but hope for the best, plan for the worst. If this comes to pass, RM is suddenly going to be absolutely critical. Copmanies with weak or nonexistent RM programs, or those that have let them languish, are suddenly going to find themselves at a real, serious disadvantage. They've effectively put every single marketing egg they have in one basket, which is not a good idea in the bst of times, and could be an incredibly bad one if all this comes to pass.

What does this means specifically?

  • Build your database as aggressively as you can. A lot of companies eventually just put the development of their databaes on a kind of automatic pilot — content with mediocre, or "acceptable" results. If, under President Obama, DTC becomes a less-viable option, the database is suddenly going to become very important.
  • Make sure your patient need/access programs are well funded and used. These programs are like aircraft carriers — you can't just turn them on a dime. It takes time and planning to bring them up to speed. Begin now.
  • Plan to change your DTC TV to adherence messaging. Regulation of DTC will almost certainly be focused on what's perceived as hard-sell acquisition marketing. By switching to an adherence focus, this can be managed without gutting your DTC mechanism.
  • Start using multi-channel Relationship Marketing with a strong emphasis on service not sales.The multi-channel part is essential. We are increasingly living in a world where consumers get their information through many channels. This means pharma, too.

LIke it or not, ready for it or not, fair or not, change is almost certainly coming. Being prepared is simply a variant on the idea of not putting all of your eggs in one marketing basket. Start moving them now.