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‘Jaws’ as allegory for today’s healthcare marketing? Yes, ‘You’re gonna need a bigger boat’

Ned Russell


We all know the scene. There’s Roy Scheider, at the stern of the boat Orca, shoveling out chum, and mumbling to himself that he isn’t going to take any more abuse from Captain Quint (Robert Shaw), when suddenly the biggest great white shark anyone had ever seen comes out of the water to let Scheider – and everyone else – know how badass he is. Scheider, now ashen, walks onto the bridge and tells Quint, “You’re gonna to need a bigger boat.”

This scene from Jaws closely parallels the situation healthcare marketers and their agencies find themselves in today. Think of poor Scheider as the marketer; Quint as management; chum as – literally and figuratively – the traditional tactics and plans marketers have used to attract their customers (old, and with an unpleasant stink about them); and the great white is…well, that’s what’s coming to eat you, my friends.

The great white threat is the rise of consumerism in healthcare, soon to be evidenced by Amazon opening a giant can of whupass on Rx as you knew it. It’s the omnipresent fact that every business is a technology business, and health leaders can only continue to keep their heads in the sand for only so long.

The first bite will be to a healthcare system geared toward population health and grounded in electronic health records, making data as important to our industry as it is to a trader on Wall Street. And the sheer size of the shark is emblematic of a broader meaning of health that puts every disease in the context of how a life is really affected – all in the name of creating a better outcome.

While most healthcare marketers and agencies realize that change is happening, their response is tepid, at best (as if Scheider, upon seeing the shark, just smiled and kept throwing out chum). The evolution in healthcare marketing is slow and incremental at the very moment we all need to be preparing for a wave of disruption. It’s ironic that the industry that needs to change most for the wellbeing of the population it serves is perhaps the most ill-prepared for the type of transformation that has already turned industries like retail (Amazon), lodging (Airbnb), and transportation (Uber) upside-down.

We see five critical areas where this “bigger boat” thinking needs to be applied for health marketers to be successful at navigating the change that is upon us:

Look beyond the traditional talent pool.

The first thing healthcare marketers and agencies need to do is build out their current resources and talent pool to attract people with different points of view, to expand the foundational expertise of healthcare and balance it with regulatory expertise. Proactively mixing things up will challenge legacy ways of working and lead to smarter and more effective solutions.

Embrace technology.

It takes more than a patient app or some other price-of-entry tactic that most Rx brands have. Technology needs to be treated as an extension of your Rx delivery, something with utility. Takeda and Johnson & Johnson, among others, have well-publicized initiatives and partnerships in place to integrate technology into how an overall Rx benefit is delivered “beyond the molecule.”

As another example of rethinking tech, a fertility drug or vitamin business might consider partnering with Ava, a bracelet technology that detects the beginning of a woman’s fertility window and related health measures, to build relevance.

Get smart about data.

You may be using data to track brand health or to measure a patient journey, but the fact is data is the new sales force for healthcare. To use data proficiently requires enhanced capabilities that few pharmaceutical companies or agencies have in place today. Rather than an infrastructure built for advertising, this type of marketing requires analysts, data scientists, and engineers who can turn numbers into actionable insights and modern approaches.

For example, a company launching a specialized therapy, such as a monoclonal antibody, might delve into the data to call on provider organizations and vet EHRs to identify the right patient population, and then target those patients whose payers cover the drug therapy by informing their providers that this therapy is available. In this case, the cost is taken down on all sides – the provider and payer would incur far more expense if an “event” happened, because the patient was not on the drug, and the outcome for the HCP and patient is far more preferable.

Embrace consumerism.

For an industry that is helping bolster growth in television advertising spend, healthcare is not a consumer-friendly business. In fact, I recently sat through a presentation where a C-level executive for a major Blue Cross/Blue Shield organization told the audience that her company’s research indicated that consumers increasingly feel that the healthcare industry doesn’t “have their backs,” and it doesn’t really care for them at all. In 2019, this perception is not good for healthcare marketers and brands.

As technology advances, the consumer wins. The companies that have successfully transformed other industries did so by having an intense and unrelenting focus on their customers and communities, designing solutions that make consumers’ lives easier, more convenient and – if need be – less expensive.

Customer-centric brands are already winning health: Witness Oscar (and Google’s investment in it); Voro (an “Open Table-like” community for reviews of local physicians); the change in delivery of primary care via retail outlets and telehealth (think CVS and Aetna, or NY Presbyterian kiosks in NYC Duane Reade pharmacies); or, of course, the initiatives of Amazon and Pill Pack and the implications of Apple’s recent announcement that it is upgrading its health apps.

Consumerism may be healthcare’s most underleveraged asset. It’s important to engage partners who can unlock consumer insights, archetypes and behavioral science, and develop brand platforms around this deeper understanding of people and culture to get to better marketing outcomes.

Broaden your organization’s definition of health.

It is particularly frustrating that pharma companies have been reluctant to embrace a broader meaning of health – especially as pharma may have the most to gain from viewing health not just as diagnoses and treatments, but as lifestyle. Few patients are cured by drugs alone, so if pharma marketers start with a broader view of the holistic elements that factor into how a disease is managed – emotional, nutritional and economic – they would create more valuable and enduring brands.

Patent ownership may not matter as much if a customer – be it patient, doctor, or payer – insists on a brand’s broader solution. Each vertical in the health cycle is at risk while it’s trying to keep health within certain swim lanes. The disruptive businesses that are upending legacy models are doing so by taking broader, holistic approaches with the customer at its center.

The great white shark is upon us. In fact, there is a school of them, coming from all sides. The transformation that is happening in healthcare cannot be stopped. The only way to survive and thrive is to build a “bigger boat” – an organization that thinks outside of the boundaries, bringing in fresh perspectives and new points of view.

As far as scientific innovation goes, pharmaceutical companies do it as well as any industry, working with universities, start-ups, and sometimes even each other, but we need to bring this thinking into marketing and other ways of doing business. Recruit from outside of the industry, as well as within, open your organizations to true change, and realize that if you resist changing your mindset and approach, you may become the shark’s first victim.

Ned Russell is managing partner of healthcare at MDC Partners.

To read more: https://www.mmm-online.com/home/channel/roundup/five-things-for-pharma-marketers-to-know-thursday-february-21-2019/