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In an era of blurred channels and information clutter, it is critical for brand managers to develop a unified strategy that bridges the gaps between audiences.
Once upon a time, brands had two, or perhaps three, agencies disseminating their message. Today, there can be as many as 10, each charged with a different aspect of brand communication (online professional, online consumer, professional promotion, promotional medical education, etc.) Brand managers are faced with an extraordinary challenge managing this abundance of channels, audiences, and messages related to a single brand.
Additionally, the wealth of data available through multiple channels and in multiple formats has led, in the pharmaceutical industry, to a blurring of channels and the audiences we reach through those channels. The result is that brand managers have found it necessary to evolve a new way of marketing in healthcare—a truly unified message strategy that can appeal to multiple audiences with a unified effect.
But of course, the blurring of audiences works two ways. Thanks primarily to the Internet, consumers have access to "doctor-focused" information, ranging from early study results from Phase II trials to professional advertising. Perhaps in response to shorter physician visits—and certainly reflecting the move toward "do it yourself" information gathering—patients are conducting their own research on their health and healthcare options. The notion that "physician messages" are only seen by physicians is a fallacy.
Physicians, for their part, are also exposed to "consumer" messages. Doctors are people too, and they watch the same TV shows, read the same newspapers, listen to the same radio programs, and surf the same Internet sites as patients do. As a result, consumer-directed material can, and often does, end up in the hands of healthcare professionals. This can have far-reaching and unintended consequences for the physician, the patient, and the brand.
For a brand manager, the consequences of an unaligned brand strategy in this environment range from the inconvenient to the disastrous. For one thing, the "information age" is also the age of "information clutter," and exposing audiences to multiple messages can create confusion. If we have multiple messages, then what, exactly, does the product stand for? Without a simple, consistent value proposition, the brand might get lost in the noise; it may, in fact, be creating noise.
If the patient and physician platforms are misaligned, we may actually be impeding positive dialogue. If a patient is exposed to a "safety and tolerability" message about a drug, and the physician with whom she speaks has been exposed to "efficacy" messages for the same drug, it could be difficult for them to communicate about why that drug is the best therapy.
The most serious problem with independent message strategies is, however, related to the inferred intent of the messages. We often speak to doctors with a professional detachment that patients find alienating; when we speak to patients in a public forum about "asking their doctor," we risk implying to doctors that we are cutting them out of the diagnostic loop. These messages engender the opposite reaction to what we intend, resulting in resentment, or at a minimum, confusion.
On the other hand, choosing a single entity working with an aligned strategy can create a unified brand value proposition, shared across stakeholders, which in turn can foster a positive dialogue.
This was the case with a certain medication for a highly stigmatized and misunderstood condition. As the complete agency of record for the medication, CommonHealth created a unified messaging campaign designed to unfold over time in specific ways, to prepare both physicians and patients to initiate an effective dialogue. One of the core insights that cut across both professional and consumer audiences was that neither side knew how to initiate or engage in a conversation about diagnosis and treatment of this condition, largely due to misconceptions about the nature of the condition and types of patients who suffer from it. In fact, in many instances, the condition was not viewed as a disease at all.
With these insights, the marketing plan began by preparing physicians to recognize and treat these patients, and subsequently to activate consumer-directed messaging that would drive potential patients to the physician. An initial challenge was the limited number of treating physicians in any given area, leading to a two-step messaging approach—once a critical mass of physicians was created in a given area, localized DTC would be activated to drive patients in that region to seek help.
Channel planning was key to ensuring that the right type of patient was reached (one who was prepared to be treated in a primary care, outpatient setting) in an area where there were physicians to treat them. To this end, consumer messaging was channeled through the Internet, including a "find a doctor" feature, and localized DTC aimed at working professionals (drive-time radio, bus kiosks, etc.) The campaign has been tremendously successful.
Forecasts were initially modest, but the brand has completely changed the perception of how the condition is managed within the healthcare system. Revenues are just under $500 million, and the brand has become the leader in a newly invigorated category. One of the key drivers of this success was the campaign coordination—including timing, channel planning, and messaging—to create a positive interaction at the moment of diagnosis.
The lesson? A unified strategy has the intended effect upon each audience. Patient-directed advertising can help patients understand the nature of their condition and set expectations for treatment. And physicians appreciate the fact that patients are educated when discussing their disease state.
Creating unified messaging and designing for multiple audiences is not as difficult as it sounds. In all forms of communication, we frequently talk simultaneously to more than one audience, each with a different stake in the conversation.
For example, when one parent tells another about a child's misbehavior in front of that child (Do you know what Mary did in school today?), the second parent understands that the child's behavior is now his or her responsibility, and the child understands that parent No. 2 is now being called onto the case.
There are times when this "one message, many audiences" strategy is simply a time-saver, but there are other times when it is an unavoidable reality. Either way, it is a common and highly effective means of communicating to multiple audiences about a topic of shared interest.
The problem faced by brand managers is not theoretical; as users of language, we instinctively know how to talk to different audiences simultaneously, varying tone and content to achieve effect. Rather, the problem is more structural: The companies for whom brand managers work, and the agencies serving them, are designed with audience separation, not unification, in mind. This stems from historical separations and the reality that different audiences have different needs and abilities.
However, with the blurring of channels, the distinctions have become less meaningful, and in many cases the historic separations have become counter-functional. At the very least, building and rebuilding cross-functional teams with overlapping responsibilities is inefficient. Working with multiple agencies for the same brand but different targets can result in both muddled messages and runaway fees arising from difficult collaboration.
The good news is that the solution to the "multiple audiences, multiple channels" issue is straightforward. Instead of staffing in incrementally more complicated ways to meet multiplying responsibilities, you can simplify the structure to a single point of reference: the brand itself. In such a model, seamless integration is not the goal. Seamlessness is the goal.
This, then, is the vision of 21st century medical marketing: a unified team executing a unified vision. When a single strategy is produced, execution becomes a question of right iteration in the right context. As our traditional views of professional and consumer messaging become a thing of the past, the brand manager who can create an internally unified team, supported by a single external vendor that is organized to service multiple needs, will ultimately succeed.
Brad Davidson is vice president, strategic planner at EvoLogue, part of CommonHealth. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org