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Storytelling Partnerships – the New Face of Big Pharma Marketing


Pharmaceutical Executive

Doing deals with storytellers could be as important for pharma as collaborating with research scientists, writes Peter Houston.

Doing deals with storytellers could be as important for pharma as collaborating with research scientists, writes Peter Houston.

Peter Houston

Leading advertising trade publication Ad Week ran an interesting feature on the ‘New Face of Big Pharma Marketing’ this week. The piece outlines the changes that Obamacare combined with public distrust of pharma is forcing on marketers, noting that the era of pushing the ‘magic pill’ is gone.

Kate Cronin, global managing director at Ogilvy CommonHealth PR is reported as saying, “Now, pharma brands are about everything that surrounds a pill, including services, disease awareness, education and prevention.”

It was interesting to see three of the big drivers of change in US pharma marketing laid out in a mainstream marketing publication like Ad Week. First, the ACA is expected to bring millions of people into the system, overloading primary care doctors, nurse practitioners and medical assistants and making them grateful for any help they can get, including from pharma companies. Second, the ACA’s focus on prevention means anything pharma can do to improve patient adherence will be welcomed. And last, accountable care measures of effectiveness mean the ‘price of the pill’ is only part of future efficiency equations – behaviour modification, education and tracking all matter now.

As a switched on pharma professional you knew all this, but did you know about the partnership used by Ad Week to illustrate new approaches to pharma marketing?

Think about partnering and pharma and you think pioneering research, drug development or market access: Big Pharma bankrolling smarter, nimbler start-ups in the hope of discovering the next big thing or opening up the next major market. It’s all about assets, technologies, novel ideas for collaborations that will bring new drugs to new markets.

Nowhere in that scenario does great storytelling feature, but that is the driver behind Eli Lilly’s deal with Disney to deliver an online resource to the parents of children with Type 1 diabetes.

Spoonfull.com is exactly what you would expect from Disney, a website for parents featuring things to do, make and see. Launched in April 2012, Disney created the site to provide parents with resources and a community that inspires fun, memorable parenting.

The Type 1 add-on, launched 12 months after the main site, is billed as a resource site for children, parents and caregivers to help with the challenges of living with diabetes. Announcing the site Disney said, “Lilly is an expert in type 1 diabetes, and no one knows families like Disney.” A match made in heaven, or at least the Magic Kingdom.

As the Ad Week article says, Spoonfull.com doesn’t look like a pharmaceutical company website. Instead it features “playful branded stories, games and tips” to make it easier for young diabetic patients and their families to deal with the disease. Content from a regular roster of expert contributors including dieticians, psychologists and nurses is complimented with stories from ‘everyday families’ to help parents deal with the small things that stop kids with diabetes being kids; from advice on coping with the chore of carrying medical supplies to how to talk to your friends about having diabetes.

The thinking behind Eli Lilly and Disney’s collaboration – integrating specialist health information into a destination and community format already successful with a target audience – resonated with the message in another blog post I read recently.

In “Your brand is not the story, your brand is *in* the story”, regional Creative Director at Ogilvy Singapore, Barrie Seppings, raises concerns about too many brands telling their stories rather that the stories of their audience.

Commenting on the ‘death’ of advertising and the rise of what he calls the ‘brand story’ juggernaut’, Sepping worries that, “the person marketers work so hard to tell the story to, is actually the person they should bet telling the story about.”

He says the brand is “…more likely to be a character. Or a location. Or a plot device. Or maybe a chapter. But the real protagonist (the person we care most about in any story) is likely to be the person you’ve spent years describing as your audience.”

He admits this is a subtle distinction, but believes brands would be better served working out ‘creative, relevant ways’ to be in the stories written by their audiences. With Spoonful’s Type 1 site, Eli Lilly have achieved exactly that – the stories on the site are all about the audience, pretty much never about Lilly’s diabetes drugs.

The Ad Week article ends with a quote from Stig Albinus, chair of global healthcare at branding consultancy APCO Worldwide. He says pharma brands have an unprecedented opportunity to move up from low-key makers of medications to “champions for change.”

If pharma is to accept this challenge, succeed with health care reform and turn around consumer skepticism, maybe we’ll see more companies adding storytellers to their partnering roster alongside the scientists.

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