September 22, 2010
Unbranded Initiatives Put the Patient First and Build Brand Value
By Michael Parks
Regulatory scrutiny of branded marketing campaigns, the consumer appetite for health information, and the rise of the Internet are creating the “perfect storm” for unbranded marketing strategies to make a difference.
Unbranded initiatives can provide the intended audience with more complete information about health conditions than branded initiatives can. When done appropriately, unbranded initiatives also are often viewed by consumers as more credible. Issues management, health awareness, disease management, and patient and physician education all lend themselves to unbranded campaigns. With a public hungry for health information, and the Internet superhighway at consumers’ fingertips, an unbranded strategy can help marketers and communicators reach a broad audience that can lead to new patients. Unbranded campaigns put the patient first and, when combined with the right marketing mix, build both goodwill and market growth. When done well, unbranded public relations campaigns can elevate awareness of a particular condition in a way that makes branded marketing efforts more relevant to a given audience.
In most cases, unbranded disease awareness efforts are not subject to the disclosure requirements of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act as long as these ads do not mention or uniquely identify a specific medication or medical device. The FDA in 2007 required all drug advertisements that mention a specific drug and its use to present a major statement of side effects and contra-indications in a “clear, conspicuous, and neutral manner.” The monetary penalties for a misleading television ad can be sizable, and the reputational damage to pharmaceutical companies of a warning from the FDA can have far-reaching impact.
Most marketing and communications vehicles have some degree of space or time constraints with respect to how much information can be included. For example, depending on the product, advertisers will have to dedicate 15 to 20 seconds of a 30-second ad, or 30 seconds of a 60-second ad, to product fair balance and safety information. This limits advertisers in what they can communicate in the remaining time slot, which makes the delivery of product and disease information a real challenge. In an unbranded ad, marketers have more time to explore key messages about the disease state or condition. With fewer FDA requirements on unbranded communications, the regulatory environment is creating a shift among pharmaceutical marketers toward greater adoption of unbranded programs, but marketers and communicators need to avoid blurring the lines of unbranded and branded efforts if they want to avoid regulatory scrutiny, penalties, and potential loss of credibility.
CONSUMER HEALTH INFO
Research shows that most consumers are “information seekers” with respect to their health. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 61% of Internet users in the United States are looking online for health information. Of these, 66% are looking for information on a specific disease or medical problem. More than 100 million consumers, or 44% of adults, research drug information, according to Manhattan Research. This e-health pharma phenomenon is growing and is expected to represent the majority of U.S. adults by 2012. Unbranded campaigns enable marketers to provide valuable information about disease, from diabetes to arthritis to HIV/AIDS, and in the process, these communications foster trust between consumers and the suppliers of the information. At the same time, many physicians have limited office hours and are using well-designed and seemingly unbiased unbranded websites as additional patient education resources.
ONLINE AND UNBRANDED
A disease management program fueled by online resources can guide consumers to information while enhancing their knowledge and understanding of their conditions. In the end, consumers wanting to learn more about their conditions typically want to learn more about treatment options as well. An unbranded campaign presents a better educational opportunity than simply promoting a specific product, and it creates a broader swath of receptivity for consumers who want to learn more about treatment options. To that end, many marketers are coordinating their unbranded initiatives with branded efforts by, for example, offering online registration features on their unbranded websites through which leads are generated. Conversely, links on an established branded site can deliver patients to an unbranded site for additional information, thereby increasing and enriching the communication experience for the brand. These links are important because consumers respond to solutions—while they appreciate being made knowledgeable about a problem, they also want to know about the product solutions that address that problem.
Shrinking budgets, a crowded marketplace, or a narrow indication for an approved product may deter marketers from pursuing unbranded initiatives. However, using a blend of both branded and unbranded strategies can maximize results.
For example, a few years back, Vox Medica conducted a successful unbranded community-based Alzheimer’s disease awareness campaign in five Hispanic markets for a major product. This unbranded campaign complemented a branded professional campaign for healthcare providers as a pull-through effort to close the gap in Alzheimer’s diagnosis and treatment for Hispanic seniors. Research was conducted to create culturally and linguistically relevant materials, as well as to identify trusted channels of health information in the Hispanic community.
Through a blended approach that included community screening events, local media coverage, and distribution of unbranded health education materials, this campaign educated Hispanic seniors and their caregivers about Alzheimer’s disease and the need for early diagnosis. The result was an overall increase in new prescriptions in those markets in comparison with the national market, but the real success story was how the unbranded campaign effectively communicated important health information to an at-risk population.
Another recent example of effective online engagement is an unbranded Facebook page developed by Pfizer and EMD Serono. The Facebook page aims to build an online community of people with multiple sclerosis and their families, caregivers, and partners. The pharmaceutical companies co-market Rebif, a drug used to treat the autoimmune disease. The MS Voices page provides polls, tips, and advice for dealing with issues like stress, parenting, work, and relationships.
Merck has also stepped online with an unbranded, patient-oriented health information website, supported by a television ad campaign in which patients address viewers directly with bold statements that they “are not a target demographic” or “not data,” pointing out how Merck sees them as individuals with health needs. The MerckEngage website is completely independent of the Merck corporate website and provides clear and easy-to-understand healthy living tips and information for both patients and caregivers. Rather than push information at patients and caregivers, MerckEngage allows visitors to sign up and receive free healthy living tools, such as ongoing meal and activity plans. There is also an incentive to return to the site through an online Recipe Library, where visitors can store favorite recipes. The website makes good on its promise to engage with patients and caregivers through relevant health information.
While total spending on unbranded campaigns has not yet caught up with brand budgets, the opportunity to educate patients and engage them in their health, while building brand value, remains a worthy marketing goal.
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