The Best Story Wins

Dec 01, 2009

David Ormesher
Traditional pharmaceutical sales and marketing is based on a push strategy. We have product claims, research results, and approved language that we "push" to healthcare professionals and consumers. We assume that these claims will be convincing to our audience members, and fall back on "shouting" at our customers to achieve reach-and-frequency and share-of-voice goals. But our approach as marketers must change from purely data-driven, left-brain tactics. Marketers have to find a brand story and tell it in a compelling way that is consistent with brand positioning and the needs of our audience.

Storytelling, on the other hand, is a "pull" strategy. Stories engage audiences at a deeper level than facts, and they invite the listener to compare the storyteller's experience with their own stories.

Building Rapport

There are two ways buyers make purchase decisions. One is through a comparison of features and benefits. Buyers look for facts to provide reassurance; physicians do the same thing. Sales reps use sales aids with graphs and charts to substantiate their product claims, and physicians use this data as reassurance that the product works as promised. But emotional rapport is an equally important way that buyers evaluate products, especially early in the sales process. A good story pulls us in because it builds emotional rapport.

Unlike performance data, rapport determines whether there is resonance and a good fit between two parties. Emotional resonance is often experienced subconsciously on the part of both seller and buyer—yet it can be the deciding factor in making a purchase or prescription. In fact, the main reason long term incumbency is so powerful is because of the emotional costs of change. Even superior performance claims are not capable of displacing an existing vendor if the incumbent company or product has strong emotional resonance with the buyer.

So how can pharmaceutical marketers create that kind of rapport? How can we establish emotional resonance with our customer base? Through a story.

Politicians use stories to create emotional connections with a broad base of constituents. Consumer products companies use stories to develop resonance with consumers. And the best filmmakers use story archetypes to plant ideas deep in the psyches of the viewing public.

Pharmaceutical marketers should look for ways to leaven their evidence-based arguments, using a story to build an emotional bridge that will allow the fact-based argument to resonate with prospective clients. Because in the end, the brand with a compelling story and the facts to support it will beat a product pitch based on facts alone.

How to Tell a Compelling Story

According to Annette Simmons, author of The Story Factor, the difference between an example and a story is the emotional content and sensory details involved in the telling of a story. In pharmaceutical marketing, stories must be credible, unexpected, and well told. Here are three things to consider:

1. Good stories build trust. The best stories build trust because they ring true. Especially in a scientific field such as medicine, stories about patients must be specific and authentic. Patient stories must be grounded in the detail and grist of individual experience, consistent with the best clinical evidence, and have a narrative arc. Names, places, and direct quotes are all flesh-and-blood requirements that make stories come alive. An authentic story will have a ring of truth that will catch the attention of physicians and prompt them to map the stories you provide to those of their own patients.

For example, Novo Nordisk encourages storytelling on their Changing Diabetes Web site. In the section called "Voices of Diabetes," dozens of patients tell their own very personal and practical stories in their own words.

2. Stories come alive in the telling. A brand that wants to use story as part of a marketing strategy must become creative in the telling. Since both the stories and the storytelling will become a part of the brand, it's important to do it well.

Novartis' Channel on YouTube has numerous patient stories, told simply and credibly. Unlike typical patient case studies that use stock photos, these first person videos are warm and engaging. In one video, John Ivey, a cancer survivor, tells his personal story: "Once I saw my oldest grandchild and realized I came this close to not being a part of her life . . . "

The Novartis Channel doesn't include brand references or claims. It tells simple but profound stories about patients helped by the company. This form of storytelling is credible and unexpected, and builds emotional resonance for Novartis with both physicians and consumers.

3. The best stories surprise. The best stories counter our assumptions and expectations. As we listen to a story, we automatically scan for cues to similar story patterns and try to anticipate the ending. When what we see doesn't fit the expected storyline, we become more alert as we make sense of an uncertain paradigm.

So how can we surprise physicians, who already have an established narrative about pharmaceutical companies and their sales and marketing tactics? In this narrative, the physician is the protagonist and the pharma marketer is the antagonist. The assumption is that the marketer will present the branded drug as efficacious for the largest set of patients as possible and will claim it has the cleanest side-effect profile in its class. And of course, the physician is expected to do the company and the sales representative a big favor by writing prescriptions.

Regardless of how distorted this narrative might be, the worst way to respond is to try to counter it with facts. Facts alone are ineffective in the face of a well-established story. Better to surprise the physician with an unexpected version of the story. Most primary care physicians would be shocked to hear a product or patient story that suggests that the drug is not for everyone, that identifies the patient type that will be able to best manage the side-effect profile, and that acknowledges honestly our trust in the physician to make the right choice.

Get Practical

Of course, developing a good story and getting it approved by regulatory bodies are two different issues. In the current regulatory environment, you'll have to make some tough decisions. Stories can be branded, authentic, or approved during your lifetime— pick any two.

Your best strategy is to pick authentic over branded. Tactical approaches to authentic storytelling could include sponsoring a patient community Web site or creating an unbranded corporate site with patient stories related to the disease state related to your product. Getting involved in a physician community such as Sermo and listening to the conversations among healthcare professionals can help you source authentic story ideas.

The key insight about the development of stories is that they come from customers. Authentic stories come from the physicians and patients that you serve; and the best storytellers are actually great listeners. By cultivating great listening and observational skills, pharma marketers can find authentic stories that will create the emotional resonance that will reflect back on the brand.

Storytelling is still an under-utilized form of pharmaceutical marketing. As pharmaceutical marketers struggle with both competitive pressures and their reputation among healthcare providers, learning how to listen, discover, capture and tell credible and engaging stories will be an important skill to master.

Facts and evidence-based arguments are critical to pharmaceutical marketing as the way to reassure healthcare professionals, but compelling stories about real people told in a creative way will always be the most powerful method to inspire, influence, and transform an audience. Put facts and story together, and you will create an emotional and medical marketing juggernaut.

To get a better sense of the "push" strategy vs. the "pull" strategy, examine the following two paragraphs:

"According to the Center for Disease Control, diabetes is reaching epidemic proportions in the US. With 23 million Americans suffering from diabetes and up to an estimated 57 million more with pre-diabetes, there is a need for better clinical management and patient compliance."

"Dr. Claudia Sanchez closed the door to her office with a sigh. It was late Friday afternoon and she had just diagnosed another middle school child—her second that week—with Type 2 diabetes. Five years ago, Type 2 was a relatively rare diagnosis for a child, even in an urban setting like Houston. But now it seemed half of her teenage patients were overweight. It felt like an epidemic, and she wasn't sure she had the resources to offer preventative medicine."

David Ormesher is president of closerlook, inc. He can be reached at

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