Direct-to-consumer advertising continues to grow in the pharmaceutical industry— reaching a total of $6.58 billion in the US alone in 2020 —and with that, competition keeps intensifying. 

Having worked with top pharmaceutical companies for decades, we’ve seen first-hand how the pressure on brands to perform has been increasing while share of voice is harder to achieve. 

Personalisation is the key to better engagement and further differentiation 

Today, most brands understand that ‘performance’ is about optimizing based on customer in-market behaviours to gain the most from their marketing spend and reduce waste in media and messaging. 

They understand personalisation is the key to better engagement and further differentiation. In fact, we’ve noticed a shift in pharmaceutical companies’ goals, so much so that enhancing the ‘customer experience’ has become part of the common lexicon when prioritising strategic goals. 

But, in our experience, it doesn’t seem that pharmaceutical companies are quite prepared to bring this objective to life. 

Many brands aspire to deliver better customer experience in an omnichannel environment, but don’t have the appropriate data strategy to support personalised relevance among varied audiences, increasing receptivity among the most discerning. 

Very few, if any, in the pharmaceutical space are getting that right. 

Stuck in a rut, pharmaceutical brands lack differentiation 

Within the industry, we hear a lot of talk around achieving differentiation but when we look at what’s actioned and where money is spent, there seems to be a fundamental problem with the tools that are used, given the ambitions that brands and companies have. 

Most industry players are still working with the same inputs they’ve been using for years. Their goals might have shifted, but they’re doing the same thing over and over and expecting new results. 

Despite pharmaceutical companies’ leading position in scientific advancement, they have yet to embrace the latest approach when communicating with their audiences. The rate of change in their organisational ability needed to meet their goals is simply not up to speed. 

They often end up with a surface-level understanding of the market and not of nuanced opportunities to engage with less obvious, yet likely winnable segments of their audiences—leaving substantial revenue on the table. 

Typical industry approaches to audience strategy involve segmenting and understanding audiences based on behavioral, attitudinal, and demographic data—for example, the proactive healthcare manager, the open-minded but physician-reliant, the disengaged and under-represented (often minority), and those where health is a lower priority overall/apathetic. 

There is a pronounced emphasis on using medical or clinical data, focusing on disease type or trying to predict who may have a certain diagnosis—even if it is not explicitly documented. 

While it is important to consider these factors for sizing and reaching, they’re less effective in adding personal relevancy into marketing communications or tapping into the emotional needs that motivate behavioural change. 

The audience design process can be cumbersome and expensive, spanning months of work and hundreds of thousands of dollars—yet these brands mostly end up in the same place—looking to a stereotypical understanding of their audiences. 

This may give them general direction, but they don’t get to the specificity that is going to fuel the level of personalisation needed to achieve a good return on investment. Consumers end up being inundated with similar messaging from pharmaceutical brands, lacking true empathy. 

This only desensitises consumers to pharmaceutical advertising, fostering ambivalence and inertia among them. The result is that many pharmaceutical brands aren’t fully able to move beyond the status quo and motivate audiences towards healthier outcomes. 

Marketers need to reach beyond the low-hanging fruit 

We believe and have seen that the key to differentiation lies at a much deeper level—where patients’ engagement and motivation is considered. So, how do pharmaceutical brands begin to understand patients’ receptivity? 

How do they fit into patients’ lives and truly captivate their audience? What data is going to support a more differentiated approach? 

In our view, marketers in the pharmaceutical space need to shift their attention from looking purely at who is winnable and instead broadening their outlook to understand how to win more of their audience’s mindshare. 

Of course, there is value in establishing who the ‘low-hanging fruit’ is that makes up, say, 10% of their audience, but the bigger challenge is figuring out how to win the 80% in the middle—those who aren’t quite ‘low-hanging fruit’ but who don’t form part of the remaining 10% who will never ‘budge’. 

To do this, marketers need to ask themselves how they’re going to start better communicating to the people that they’re not yet converting. And this is where differentiation comes into the picture. Those who fall into the ‘middle’ group may be leaning towards a particular brand, but they’re likely considering alternatives too. 

Targeting this portion of the audience with ‘the same old’ messaging that talks to overgeneralised patients ultimately creates a category of confusion and inevitably drives a reliance on doctors instead of empowering the patient—and that’s simply because pharmaceutical brands aren’t talking to them in a way that they understand or are receptive to. 

To get this group to ‘move’, pharmaceutical brands need to be more relevant; they need to modernise their tactics and broaden their definition of winnable audiences by looking beyond the consumers that are already motivated and understanding how to motivate those who might otherwise be waiting in the wings. 

To succeed, brands have to consider human values and motivations 

To deliver relevance and more personalized experiences across channels, brands have to deal with people on a more individual level. This requires a constantly evolving understanding of the audience, based not only on their behaviors, but on their values and motivations. 

Human value systems, the deeply emotional outcomes we desire above all, shape what consumers see as favorable and therefore influence behaviour and the choices they make. 

When companies can connect the functional needs of their brand into these desired emotional outcomes, they can best influence behavior and break inertia. For example, we’ve seen values like health and personal security trump others like social status or belonging within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Wellness-focused values, like quality of life, have become greater priorities in the consumers’ eyes, prompting purchases that they believe would contribute to their wellbeing or that of their families.

Some of what consumers long for, what truly speaks to them, remains stable, but many of their needs evolve. The pandemic, among other impactful events over the past two years, has shone a light on just how adaptable consumers are and how much their values may shift. 

This presents brands with the challenge and opportunity to carefully examine how their offering fits into those different aspects of consumers’ lives. Brands that deliver against the most relevant human values are the ones that are able to drive choice and influence consumers more effectively. 

To win in the future—brands must put patients’ needs at the center. They need to understand the more empathetic conversation they should have to reduce the risk of simplification. There are great opportunities for pharmaceutical companies to consider how to motivate with a more tailored proposition based on emotional needs. 

Individuals who are met with ‘cookie cutter’ messaging are likely to remain unmoved. Targeting the same consumers with more emotionally personalized and highly relevant messaging is far more likely to grab their attention and elicit a meaningful response. 

To do that—to get past the generic, baseline segmentation strategies that don’t result in insightful marketing—pharmaceutical companies need to push themselves (and their partners) to seek an understanding of the underlying values that shape a defined population’s decisions—not just micro decisions about a brand choice but a spectrum of decisions that uncover the implicit path to consumers’ hearts and minds. 

Marketers need to move into a modern audience strategy mindset. More than ever, as new competition enters the category and as new channels emerge, pharmaceutical companies need to focus on psychographics over demographics to ensure that they differentiate their brand and engage their audiences in a personalised and empathetic way. 

They need to loosen their reliance on traditional tools that do not solve for the need to understand patients as humans. By looking at the real-life picture, pharmaceutical companies will be able to implement a more inclusive strategy that involves an understanding of meaningful differences between people as opposed to a view of a homogenised group within a population. 

With an understanding of the human nuances within their audiences, marketers can start to play from a creative messaging perspective, on a deeper level. In a ‘Health Inertia Study’ that we conducted this year, we noted that the right content can actually motivate action and change attitudes. 

That may sound straightforward, but we found that marketing tailored to people’s personal health values can actually increase consumer action by double to triple digits, compared to standard industry advertising. 

More than 50% of people suffering chronic conditions simply aren’t motivated to make any changes with traditional segmentation. To motivate them, we’ve learned that companies must connect with them not educationally, but around their personal motivations and individual biases. 

This goes to show that delivering personalised and emotional content to a deeply understood audience is the new gold standard of marketing—and, we believe, the way forward for pharmaceutical companies that want to achieve true differentiation as brands that engage with their audiences in a human way and succeed at motivating those who think differently, enabling the expansion of their winnable audiences. 

A practical framework to expanding winnable audiences 

We recommend starting with qualitative research that helps brands get to deeper levels; and yes, while it’s important to listen, they should also validate the propensities within the market and begin to size those differences. 

And if brands can connect it with data, they’ll be set to start creating personalisation. Depending on where pharmaceutical companies sit in the health space, they’ll then be able to scale those audiences, enabling the brand to: 

Humanise – conduct consumer research 

Prioritise – size the potential, whether through existing consumer data or a survey, for example 

Orchestrate – bring the plan to life and differentiate the experience With more of the audience considered ‘winnable’, brands would be able to unlock more of a market that determines their success. 

What’s next? Here’s how we help 

At Wunderman Thompson’s Cognitive Intelligence Practice, rather than approaching segmentation from a traditional stance, we follow a modern audience strategy, testing and learning what really moves people to act, and then we scale that capability for clients. 

Follow Wunderman Thompson on social media for more insights on audience strategy, motivation, and overcoming inertia. If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out to us.

By Jennifer Perry, Vice President, Cognitive Intelligence at Wunderman Thompson and Stephen Troncoso, Vice President, Strategy at Wunderman Thompson