Gentle Collisions in Marketing

Dec 01, 2010
By Pharmaceutical Executive


Sandra Stahl
One of the most talked about stories across the world recently was the drama of the Chilean miners—how it happened that 33 miners came to be trapped for 69 days in a hot, underground space the size of a studio apartment. This story did not lack for angles: the meticulous planning of the rescue, the ingeniousness of the technology used, the intestinal fortitude of the men themselves, even a political storyline in the role of the Chilean president. But what underpinned and trumped all of these was the emotional connection readers and viewers around the world felt with the men, their families, and the rescuers.

The stories—individual and overall—of creative coping, real-world impact of scientific and technological breakthroughs, and plain old human triumph underscored the critical role humanity plays in any good narrative. Telling a brand story is no different—especially in healthcare. The human touch should remain a compelling element of the marketing mix and a necessary complement to mass and digital approaches.

While mastering the digital domain still remains elusive to pharma for a variety of reasons—from FDA guidelines to corporate legal and regulatory concerns—it is worth noting that serious engagement with digital channels is "less than universal" among top-level marketing executives across most industries, according to a new report from the CMO Council and Accenture. Perhaps this is because despite the various benefits of social media—cost efficiency, scale, access to customer intelligence, forums for online interaction—it alone cannot create the kind of deeply personal resonance that sticks.

Patients and consumers, especially those at risk, need a connection to a disease, issue, or brand that touches them in a way that eclipses how they feel about the price of the brand, the cost of their insurance, or their feelings about the pharmaceutical industry in general. While the flickering signs of economic recovery are still, well, flickering, brand marketing leaders should not just hit the "reset" button on their standard list of branded tactics that deliver mass reach, cost efficiencies, and the hard ROIs they're being pressured to deliver. Message and brand awareness will always have important places, but today's consumers and patients need some semblance of a feeling that a brand knows them and cares about them and their needs, challenges, and aspirations, and is delivering exclusively for them. "In their face" approaches must give way to "in their lives."

A blend of tactics that includes a program of regular, gentle intersections for the brand in the daily lives of the target audience will hit the sweet spot that combines mass and personal marketing tactics. One former Chief Branding Officer called these daily life intersections "gentle collisions."

Gentle Collisions

The idea behind gentle collisions, or intersections, for brands or brand messages in the lives of the target audience is simple: If your audience thinks positively about your brand or what your brand offers because of personal interaction they can relate to (an event they participated in, article they've read, or video they've seen), they are more likely to take some kind of action (research the brand, self-identify as potentially having a condition, or talk with their doctor) and even more inclined to believe in the rest of the marketing mix (the mass effort of, for example, DTC). It follows, then, that engagement overall should be more robust and that the overall ROI will justify (or exceed) the incremental cost.

Strategies for which gentle intersections are ideally suited are those targeted to reach a narrower audience (such as at-risk patients, people with a specific condition, or women ages 45 and up) in a deeper, more personal way. It's also important not to overthink these interactions. Indeed, some of the most effective gentle collisions seem almost retro with a decidedly current twist. Sponsored screenings or health assessment events, for example, still have the power to bring a campaign message directly home to a consumer as well as humanize the sponsoring product and/or organization. A recent article in Archives of Internal Medicine about the effectiveness of barbershop-based screenings and health education is a good example of the connectivity of a tactic one might think came straight out of a 1980s playbook. Being contemporary is only important if it's important to your target audience or if it removes the frustration or inconvenience from a given action.

Consider, for example, the program UnitedHealth Group currently has under way, meant to improve diabetes awareness and management and in so doing, reduce costs related to the condition and its complications. The effort includes a partnership with the YMCA and retail pharmacies (beginning with Walgreens) and involves offering screenings and information sessions led by health professionals as well as support from neighborhood pharmacists. Awareness and participation is driven by local and national communications. The current twist here is the addition of an advanced health plan swipe-card technology, which enables Walgreens and the YMCA to be paid—for the first time—automatically through a paperless system. UnitedHealth Group says the program has brought meaningful diabetes management into people's homes and into their lives.