Get Organized

July 1, 2009
Megan Svensen

Pharmaceutical Executive

Pharmaceutical Executive, Pharmaceutical Executive-07-01-2009, Volume 0, Issue 0

What community organizing can teach pharma marketers about building a brand.

The last presidential campaign brought two words into the lexicon of political and popular culture when the ultimate "community organizer," Barack Obama, was elected President. Pundits credit much of Obama's electoral success to the vast grassroots network he built by applying some of the core principles of community organizing. The good news for pharma marketers is that the principles and tools of community organizing are effective for far more than winning elections; they can also build powerful brand communities.

Megan Svensen

In this digital marketing age, consumers increasingly want to be part of the brand conversation rather than passive receivers of brand messages. This environment creates the perfect opportunity for brand marketers to recast themselves as community organizers of sorts, advocating and mobilizing on behalf of the brands they support to achieve their own successful results.

Not So Strange Bedfellows

Community organizing is a process by which people living in proximity to each other are brought together to act in their common self-interest and achieve social change through collective action. For pharma, however, community organizing takes a slightly different form. Rather than geographical proximity, we are looking to build communities of patients, using a shared condition and the desire to live a better life as the ties that bind.

The concept of a brand community focuses on connections between consumers; it is a community based on attachment to a product or the need to gain support surrounding a condition or disease. As time passes, the brand community begins to draw its strength from relationships with fellow community members, building a deeper and richer community that can benefit the brand that brought patients together.

Core Principles

Though brand communities are not geographically bound, there is still much that marketers can learn from community organizers to mobilize and connect their target consumers. Specifically, there are three core principles of community organizing—reflection, relationship building, and action—as identified by the Marin Institute, a non-profit that has successfully used community organizing as part of their mission to reduce alcohol problems through environmental prevention.

When used effectively, these principles can translate to PR strategy planning and program development, with the ultimate goal of creating strong and sustainable brand communities on behalf of clients. Novo Nordisk is one company that is doing a good job of using their category leadership to build brand communities. Here's how that company is putting these three core principles to work:

Reflection A community organizer must get to know the community he or she will be working in as a way to lay the foundation for the work that comes later. This includes talking to community members to gauge their concerns and identify the issues that are important to them. It means listening to people's stories, finding a common thread, and working to share those stories to help bring about change.

For pharma marketers, an important first step in formulating a strategy is to take time for thoughtful, deliberative assessment. It's crucial to understand the marketing challenges and opportunities. This understanding is not possible without listening to the target audience. How do they feel about their condition? How do they feel about their treatment? How can you make an emotional connection? Brand communities are driven by connection and passion, thus a brand must engage emotionally to win consumer engagement.

Novo Nordisk's "Be the Face of Change" diabetes education campaign is an example of effectively engaging a community—in this case, diabetes patients—by learning about their concerns. Living with diabetes requires adapting to new lifestyle habits and adjusting to new and sometimes different treatment regimens over time, including insulin. Through the DAWN (Diabetes Attitudes, Wishes and Needs) program, Novo Nordisk partnered with International Diabetes Federation and an international expert advisory board to improve psychosocial support for people with diabetes worldwide. Research from the DAWN study showed people with diabetes need support and coaching to master their disease in daily life and deal with the medical and psychosocial challenges it brings.

"Be the Face of Change" was developed to inspire and encourage patients to embrace the changes required to live healthy lives with their disease. This was achieved through real patients sharing their stories of successful diabetes management via a photo exhibit. By celebrating their examples, Novo Nordisk sent a message to people living with diabetes that managing diabetes is within reach.

People from Hawaii to New Hampshire were featured in the exhibit, which debuted in New York City, and has traveled to cities across the country for the past three years. The photos and the stories behind them were also featured on the campaign Web site, along with information for patients about diabetes care, management, and support. Thousands of people have been touched by these stories on site at the exhibits, online, and through media coverage. This campaign could not have been successful without a deep understanding of the diabetes community.

Relationship Building Community organizers frequently utilize the "community wheel" model to build a core action team (culled from public and private sectors such as education, government, and business) to guide the work needed to enact or change policy. Marketers must also identify key influencers and potential partners deemed appropriate to mobilize the target audience on behalf of a brand. By incorporating key constituents and third parties into the process, marketers can develop a strategy that deploys (or at least recognizes) the role each member of the "community wheel" plays in building an effective community outreach program.

The partnership between Novo Nordisk and the national nonprofit Divabetic—a community-based group providing diabetes education and encouragement to women living with or at risk for diabetes—was formed in response to a need in the diabetes community to improve quality of life, share knowledge, and raise visibility. What began as a one-time fundraising endeavor became a grassroots movement to empower women by allowing them to connect and challenge each other to take charge of their diabetes.

Novo Nordisk worked with Divabetic to bring the "Makeover Your Diabetes" program to cities with a high incidence of the disease, providing education and empowerment alongside free beauty makeovers from expert stylists. The confidence-building program highlights themes like "glam more, fear less," and focusing on positive self-image and "twist and shout" exercises, with tips for integrating movement into daily life.

To date, more than 5,000 people have taken part in the program. "Makeover Your Diabetes" has been an effective partnership because it recognizes that as women play a critical role in driving change in their homes and communities, they can also help themselves and others to adopt healthier lifestyles.

Action In community organizing, the call to action is getting out the vote. Grassroots execution is invaluable to both community organizers looking to change policy and pharma marketers looking to change attitudes and behavior. For marketers, this is accomplished through local media, local experts, and local partnerships.

Recently, Novo Nordisk partnered with Cathedral International, a church serving African American and Hispanic communities—populations that often show a high prevalence of diabetes. Blood sugar screenings were held in three member churches in New Jersey, which also displayed the "Be the Face of Change" photo exhibit. Local pastors encouraged congregants to attend.

Here we see the domino effect at work, from umbrella organization to local churches and pastors, and finally to parishioners who encouraged their friends and families to attend. The screenings became a community event. Mobilizing members of this church community at a local level resulted in the screening of nearly 400 congregants, including nearly half the parishioners in Asbury Park and nearly one quarter in Plainfield. Novo Nordisk is reinforcing its partnership with the Cathedral by sponsoring a series of events throughout 2009 to engage multiple groups within the church.

Keep the Conversation Going

Novo Nordisk's relationship and community building—on both a national and a local level—are a prime illustration of what can be achieved when brands unite their target audience toward a common goal, much as a community organizer would. By wedding the principles of effective community organizing with the basics of brand marketing, pharma marketers can take their brands beyond merely dispensing a one-way message to a two-way conversation and ongoing relationship with consumers. As Barack Obama proved on both levels, change is made one person at a time.

Megan Svensen is executive vice president, MMC Health, Marina Maher Communications. She can be reached at msvensen@mahercomm.com

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