Pharma marketing has a rough history of confusing ads and consumer distrust. Can content marketing help repair it?
Marketing Content Strategy

Fast Talk and Funny Names: How Pharma Marketing Is Working to Repair Brand Trust

7 Minute Read

Before you continue to read ahead, please note that reading this article about pharma marketing is only a part of a whole therapeutic treatment for your brand, and should only be considered part of a whole treatment plan from your content marketer. Side effects of reading may include anxiety, immediate desire to change everything, depression about your ads, or disbelief. Should you experience any physical symptoms, please contact your physician as that’s almost certainly not related to this article.

If that disclaimer sounds familiar, then it’s more than likely that you’ve been exposed to one of those wonderful TV or radio ads where a wonder drug is presented, only to be buried by thirty seconds of fast-spitting legal and medical jargon. It’s also likely that you aren’t alone. This has been the normal state of pharma advertising for many Americans since the FDA began regulating the promotion of drugs back in 1848, and then again when they allowed direct-to-consumer promotion in 1985.

Today, we’ve evolved to a new level, in which labels, ads, web resources, and physician recommendations all compete to point patients towards medications. But between unregulated misinformation—in the form of thousands of health blogs, social comments, and message boards—and overwhelmingly formulaic ads that convey too much too quickly, patients are being left behind.

For pharmaceutical brands that want to compete in the space, pharmaceutical ads have quickly fallen out of vogue. But this has left a vacuum for content-oriented brands to make huge strides, earn trust, and stay relevant in the market.

Image of a pile of pills on a leaf

Image attribution: Michal Jarmoluk

The Unique United States of Pharma Marketing

In the US, we have a unique relationship with pharmaceutical ads. Not only are we one of the few countries where direct-to-consumer promotion of pharmaceuticals is legal, but we also spend not millions, but billions of dollars on direct-to-consumer pharma ads yearly.

But the effect has sunk in, and consumers aren’t satisfied. By the mid 2000s, pharma brands began to see a rapid decline in consumer trust and interest in ads. Since then, however, it’s been possible to cut costs and reach people more frequently by substituting some expensive television media spots with targeted digital campaigns—and so some pharma brands persisted nonetheless.

Now, a decade after the initial decline in pharmaceutical advertising was first spotted, some pharma marketing professionals are advocating for an industry-wide shift towards content as a way to rebuild trust and provide information that is actually useful to patients, rather than bombarding them with ads.

However, the path towards content for pharma brands is a bit contentious. With other industries that made the switch, it wasn’t unusual for brands to work with agencies for expertise out of the gate and then slowly reach a measure of equilibrium where some content is made in-house, with the agency pulling weight to keep steady growth happening. But in pharma, where PR and the C-suite voice is constantly front-of-stage, brands are struggling to find a way to have executives take ownership of content, resulting in slower adoption. If there’s a way through for pharma brands, it’s going to require some measure of balance between the directive voice of the C-suite and the expertise of content marketing teams. Brands that are able to strike this balance should be well-positioned for their industry’s future.

Great advice—but who’s listening?

Building a Special Relationship Through Content

Pharma brands currently land on a wide range of spaces when it comes to marketing with content, though some reluctant compliance can be seen across the board.

Take pharma research giant GlaxoSmithKline, for instance. A recognized brand with a clearly consumer-friendly site, they’ve gone far enough into content to become present across social media channels and to provide a “resource center” that houses a handful of useful documents related to very specific needs and questions they often receive. In this, their consumer-oriented content presence serves more as PR than it does content.

However, if you approach their website from the angle of another fellow researcher or innovator in the healthcare space, then GSK provides a relatively more robust space to keep up with news, read useful content, and generally interact with the work that GSK is doing. In some ways, this actually puts GlaxoSmithKline ahead of the curve. Rather than trying to orient their overall brand towards consumers, they’re using their overall brand as more of a B2B tool in recognition of the fact that most consumers don’t know who manufactures their medication or have any brand loyalty to medication producers. It’s a content decision that doesn’t necessarily fix their consumer trust issues, but uses content in a way that is realistic about the organization of their audience as it stands today.

By comparison, massive pharma groups like Novartis, Pfizer, and Roche have each gone all in on content, making their content hubs front and center on their homepages. For pharmaceutical brands that want to mimic these more developed content efforts, there are two core similarities in orientation that seem to resonate.

Choosing the Right Content Orientation

These are essentially two “tilts” that your brand can choose for the content hub when it comes to earning audience trust. Tilts are orientations that your content takes, based on your brand’s goals and the opportunities currently available to your team in terms of topical matter. What’s nice about this approach is that it remains flexible for your brand, but allows a lot of room for tending in one direction or another to match the emphases that you want to convey. What’s challenging is that it may not be opportune to stay in one place for too long—dynamism has always been the blessing and curse of content marketing.

The Scientific Approach

On one end of the tilt scale, there’s the scientific approach. With this focus, your content will center around the research advancements of your group, positioning your authority through a mix of informational and research content. In terms of opportunity, this content pairs nicely with PR campaigns to announce new advancements, products, or discoveries that your brand is spearheading, and it should aim to give more detail or tell the story of how these advancements were made. Why does your brand care about these illnesses in particular? What future do you envision by creating these treatments? Overall, this should grab audiences who are active participants in their treatment, who like to read up and ask questions of their doctors, who care most about the efficacy of treatment over their therapeutic relationship.

Take for instance Pfizer’s coverage of the advancements they’re making in vaccine research. This content puts the brand’s scientific expertise on display, makes complex topics accessible to their readers, and then articulates why this research matters for the world. In doing so, they make the audience partners in the brand’s vision for the future, but it leaves a little room for the audience to want to see this research actually impacting people here and now. This is where the other tilt becomes important.

The Patient-Centric Approach

The second end of the tilt scale is a more patient-centric approach. With this approach, your brand will employ interviews, patient stories, value-add health content, and other similar lifestyle material that’s meant to bring your brand closer to the healing experiences of your patients. This is an effective approach for brands who have struggled with particularly disingenuous past ad campaigns, or for brands with audiences that care more about how medication will affect their life, as opposed to how medications will affect their bodies.

It’s also a focus that pairs well with current events. For instance, when the Syrian refugee crisis was hitting a new fever pitch earlier in the summer of 2017, Novartis created a fascinating piece about the challenges and solutions for tackling chronic illness in the Syrian community. This content didn’t advance the brand’s position as a research institution or innovator in medicine, but it did show how their work has real-world impact driven by a care for their patients. Pairing this style of content with scientific thought leadership can create a holistic image of clout and personableness that is essential for pharmaceutical brands that want to connect directly with their consumers.

Novartis Homepage Screenshot

Every healthy content hub should contain some mix of both of these tilts, and then hone in more specifically on a drug by drug basis to match the specific needs, interests, and concerns of their audiences. Distrust for pharma brands largely stems from audience perception that pharma companies don’t actually care about improving patient lives and only care about turning a profit. Anything your brand can do to subvert this perception by connecting with your audience’s lives will help repair the relationships harmed by advertising—and in doing so lend additional authority and credibility to the scientific pieces that your brand publishes to stay relevant in your space.

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Featured image attribution: Daria Nepriakhina

Kyle Harper is a writer, editor, and marketer who is passionate about creative projects and the industries that support them. He is a human who writes things. He also writes about things, around things, for things, and because of things. He's worked with brands like Hasbro, Spotify, Tostitos, and the Wall Street Journal, as well as a bunch of cool startups. The hardest job he's ever taken was the best man speech for his brother's wedding. No challenge is too great or too small. No word is unimportant. Behind every project is a story. What's yours?

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