Pharmaceuticals marketing has always been about talking to the
middle man - the medics, the managers, the third-party endorsers, thanks
to statutory regulation. But with the availability of healthcare
information on the internet, there is a growing requirement for
manufacturers to address consumers directly.
In a move that recognises the changing environment, the European
Commission has adopted a trial period of DTC (direct to consumer)
advertising across three chronic disease areas - asthma, diabetes and
This means that pharma companies may soon be allowed to enter into
dialogue with patients seeking information on the internet.
"At the moment, legislation is behind the reality," says Gloria Gibbons,
director of healthcare PR specialist the Shire Hall Group. "The internet
is changing everything and the consumer now has access to a global forum
of opinions and information."
Indeed, while the companies are restricted in how they promote their
drugs online, anyone can post up inaccurate or even downright dangerous
information on the net, and anyone can tap into that information from
overseas. "You can even find sites that list ongoing drug trials, so if
you can't get the treatment you want on the NHS, then you can nominate
yourself for the appropriate trial," adds Gibbons.
If this is the case, allowing the real - often local - experts on
products and services to have a voice on the web could actually do
everyone a favour.
The internet is not the only driver of patient power. Scare stories, the
furore about NHS funding, postcode prescribing and payment for treatment
have all contributed to patients taking more responsibility for their
"The change really came with AIDS in the mid-80s, which primarily
affected a group that was self-confident, affluent, educated and used to
being empowered," says Carolyn Paul, international business director,
health at Edelman PR Worldwide.
Today, HIV/AIDS activists give PR support and training to other advocacy
groups. And for the industry, working with such groups can prove to be a
powerful communications tool. By building mutually beneficial
partnerships, a tightly focused target audience can be delivered on a
"Over the past 12 months, we've done an umbrella education campaign
called 'We Can' with the British Epilepsy Association (BEA) on behalf of
GlaxoSmithKline (GSK)," says Jennie Talman, managing director of the
Chandler Chicco Agency.
The agency created a collection of writings from women with epilepsy,
while GSK partnered with BEA and Superdrug on a project called Get
Ahead, fronted by actress Patsy Palmer, which targeted teenage girls.
This campaign identified women with epilepsy and worked to help them
make informed choices about their treatment.
Beware of propaganda
However, as Paul Copp, director of healthcare at Nexus Choat Public
Relations, warns: "Many things motivate patient groups and key opinion
leaders but, above all, credibility comes into the equation and it is
The media, opinion leaders and those in professional and patient groups
are not fools, and they will all recognise blatant propaganda."
Indeed, patient groups are quick to stress that pharma companies are
welcome to fund aspects of their work, but they would never endorse a
particular firm or product.
"As an independent organisation, we work with companies collectively, as
the person affected by asthma is our key priority," says Philippa
Cowley-Thwaites, head of communications for the National Asthma
But as the pharma industry seeks to address the issue of patient
compliance, full-service PR agencies are responding by integrating their
communication disciplines. Hill & Knowlton, Countrywide Porter Novelli
and Edelman have all married their ethical healthcare skills with their
brand-building expertise to create formal consumer healthcare
Likewise, a new breed of consumer PR agencies, targeted specifically at
the pharma industry, has sprung up, such as Kinetic, set up by Karen
Moyse last year. "The opportunity is to combine knowledge of consumer
marketing with an understanding of healthcare marketing," she says.
But with regulation still a huge barrier to direct contact with
consumers, pharma companies are in virgin territory. As Moyse says: "It
will not work simply applying straight consumer-marketing techniques to
Health marketing has its own specific needs, so you need a knowledge of
SONATA INSOMNIA TREATMENT
Last Summer, Lundbeck & Wyeth Laboratories launched Sonata, a treatment
for insomnia, designed for short-term use by those who have difficulty
Research suggested that although insomnia was seen as a widespread
problem, it was not considered a serious medical condition.
To raise awareness of insomnia as a medically significant and treatable
condition, while increasing GP presentations from patients with sleep
disorders, healthcare PR specialist Shire Hall Communications instigated
a media campaign. This involved consulting key opinion leaders and
journalist advisory panels, while using a Gallup sleeping-difficulty
survey to create newsworthy interest among the general public and the
Also, consumer and healthcare journalists were invited to the University
of Surrey Sleep Unit, where their own sleep patterns and sleep
efficiency were analysed.
This resulted in wide-spread interest from the healthcare and consumer
media including GP, Practice Nurse, the Daily Mail, The Telegraph and
"The quality and quantity of coverage across a diverse range of
broadcast and published media totally exceeded our expectations," says
Rod While, group product manager (neurology) for Lundbeck & Wyeth, who
adds that sales were equally impressive.
- Analyse the business potential of a consumer campaign to determine if
your product is suitable.
- Don't assume you understand your consumers. Find out who they are, and
their rational and emotional drivers. Test your messages.
- Adapt consumer-branding principles and techniques. You must have a
clear proposition to motivate action.
- Get the language right. You're not talking to doctors.
- Identify lifestage triggers and issues that can become part of your
product proposition and help you differentiate.
- Don't rely on pharmaceutical communications specialists to produce a
- Build your own credibility through people your consumers trust.
- Analyse the doctor/patient conversation and support it.
- Set budget levels that allow consistent communication plus impact.