Can marketing change the world?

Jan PME cover

This year, a landmark law that criminalises and bans the sale of ivory in the UK will finally come into force. It’s about time; the elephant population has more than halved in the last 40 years, with worldwide demand for ivory fuelling the illegal slaughter of more than 20,000 African elephants every year. The UK’s Ivory Act, considered the toughest legislation of its kind in the world to date, is a watershed moment in a global movement to end the ivory trade. Its introduction owes much to the power of marketing.

In 2016, WildAid’s ‘Join the Herd’ campaign to celebrate and protect elephants and rhinos prompted one of the biggest global conversations ever. Within a year, the campaign had reached 160 countries across five continents, generating over two billion impressions without any paid media. Moreover, it powered a herd mentality that’s helped lobby governments, shift behaviours and, ultimately, save endangered wildlife. If you ever want proof that marketing can change the world, ask an elephant.

It’s a message worth noting for global pharma. As marketing budgets get smaller and investment in brands declines, the ability of creative communications to change minds and habits should never be overlooked.

Caricature assassination

The suggestion that ‘marketing can change the world’ is gaining traction. Conferences are increasingly testing the hypothesis, while the leading marketing publication, The Drum, has been championing the philosophy for years. At first glance, the claim sounds suspiciously like… erm, marketing. But dig beneath the stereotypes that caricature marketing as ‘fluff’ and it quickly becomes apparent that creative communications can make a real difference.

Cause marketing is all the rage. For example, the global narrative of ‘climate emergency’ is being underpinned by brilliant creative campaigns to promote behaviour change around recycling, carbon footprint and single-use plastic. In the process, big brands have (authentically) hitched their wagon to a similar crusade.

Brita’s #NoFilterNoFuture has raised awareness of plastic pollution, Adidas has focused on Ocean Waste, while IKEA’s ‘Steps’ campaign has shone a flat-pack light on green technology and eco-friendly travel.

We also see an abundance of campaigns tackling diversity and equality; movements like #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo and #PayMeToo are now firmly etched in the public consciousness, while diversity-led campaigns from familiar brands are highlighting the power of marketing when creatives get it right (Dove’s Dear Future Dads and Ariel’s Share the Load) and when they get it wrong (Gillette’s We Believe in the Best in Men). In many cases and for many causes, marketing is becoming a key weapon in influencing behaviour change for social good.

It’s no surprise that building ‘brands with purpose’ has become the marketing profession’s latest mantra. According to David Hieatt’s 2014 book, ‘Do Purpose’, the most important brands connect with customers because they have ‘a reason to exist over making a profit’; they have ‘something they want to change’ and their customers ‘want to be part of that change’.

Hieatt says that brands with a purpose ‘do better and matter more’. The numbers appear to back up the claim. For instance, Unilever says that in 2018, its 28 Sustainable Living Brands, which support positive change for people and
the planet, grew 69% faster than the rest of its business and delivered 75% of its overall growth. Its conclusion: brands with purpose grow.

The elephant in the room: health

So what of the health sector? Well, in a world where most industries are ‘joining the herd’, healthcare risks becoming the elephant in the room. Despite all the rhetoric about brands with purpose (Cannes Lions 2019 was full of it), health brands are not yet perceived to be playing in the purpose-built space.

Havas’ latest study into ‘Meaningful Brands’ suggests that health and wellness is some way behind other industries in building brands that project purposes that truly connect with customers.

According to Havas, 77% of people wouldn’t care if brands disappeared – highlighting the importance of meaningful brands. The study says a meaningful brand is defined by ‘its impact on our personal and collective well-being, along with its functional benefits’.

These are metrics where health brands ought to score highly. However, only one healthcare company (J&J) makes the top 30 meaningful brands of 2019, with tech disruptors making up four of the top 5 (Google, PayPal, WhatsApp and YouTube). Alarmingly, when it comes to the most meaningful industries in 2019, health doesn’t feature among the top sectors in any global region.

From a health industry perspective, the findings of the Meaningful Brands study are both astonishing and unfair; there’s nothing more meaningful than changing or saving a human life – the industry’s work can ultimately mean the difference between life and death.

So as we move into a new decade, powered by science, technology and opportunity, how can health brands become more meaningful? And how can pharma maximise the power of marketing to change the world where it matters most?

First, let’s look at the bigger picture. Progress in health is ultimately measured by the most emphatic metric of all: mortality. We’re coming up short. The most recent Global Burden of Disease study shows that improvements in mortality rates are stagnating, with 50% of deaths preventable with simple, affordable interventions. That’s unlikely to get solved when half the world still doesn’t have access to high quality healthcare or essential medicines.

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) outline clear targets for global health improvement and, unsurprisingly, universal health coverage is a priority goal. As the WHO says, health is a human right. But while multinational agencies like the WHO dictate headline needs at the broadest level, the pharmaceutical industry is dealing with the small print; the nuances of chronic conditions, rare disease and major illness. Overcoming challenges in these areas is a complex and incremental journey.

Communications undoubtedly play a crucial (if sometimes unsung) role in improving outcomes, but despite the huge technological advances redefining possibility, progress still depends on core marketing principles.

Marketing 1.0: the customer comes first

“The golden rule of business has always been to understand the customer,” said Claire Gillis, International CEO, WPP Health Practice.

“As Kotler says, authentic marketing is not about selling what you make, but about knowing what to make. That requires insight that can only come from forensic (and non-stop) customer engagement and a willingness to focus on the problems our audiences tell us they want to be solved. If we’re to build brands with purpose, we must allow our customers to dictate the terms. That means asking the right people the right questions and being prepared to listen to – and act on – the answers. Marketers have a huge role to play here.”

In the past decade, there has been much written about the importance of diversity in creative teams. It’s a no-brainer. However, consensus suggests that businesses must do more to ensure that the focus on diversity extends beyond the workplace and into the market environment.

Speaking at the Forbes CMO Summit, Ziad Ahmed, founder and CEO of JUV Consulting, recently highlighted the need for marketers to diversify external representation in brand building. “If you’re making a decision and you look around the room and there isn’t anyone there that looks like the community you’re making the decision for, you’re doing it wrong,” he said.

He’s right. But the challenge for pharma is that health is complex. “In addition to the personal idiosyncrasies that drive our individual behaviours – we’re human, emotional and irrational and unpredictable – there are many other stakeholders and socio-economic factors that influence health decision-making,” said Claire Gillis.

“If we want to improve health outcomes, we need to understand the complex dynamics that shape the therapeutic ecosystems our brands live in, and identify the common purpose that unites everyone. That means ripping up old ways of working to encourage ‘outside-in’ thinking and technology-infused creative collaborations that put the customer first. We need to establish a culture of co-creation that goes beyond the optics so that everyone, from patients, carers and consumers to scientist, health tech, life sciences and communicators, can work together to develop innovations that respond to genuine unmet need.”

Sleeping with the enemy?

In progressive sectors, ‘creative collaboration’ is being redefined. There is growing evidence that collaborating with competitors can drive transformation. For example, last summer, Anjali Sud, CEO of Vimeo, described how the tech company had worked with its biggest competitor, YouTube, to overcome a customer pain point around publishing videos across multiple platforms.

“What we ended up doing was actually building a partnership with YouTube to help our creators natively publish their videos to YouTube, Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter,” she told Forbes Women’s Summit. “What it unlocked was actually a totally new strategy for our company… one of the biggest value-adds in our product. And it all came from flipping the script in terms of how you think about whether someone is a competitor or a partner, and prioritising the problem you want to solve.”

The very idea of climbing into bed with your biggest rival has long been considered a corporate anathema. However, as a new decade dawns, it’s clear that the great disruptors of our time are rewriting the rule book. However, despite rhetoric to the contrary, the tech sector doesn’t have the monopoly on innovation or progressive thinking.

The application of AI, wearable and mobile technology is already starting to reimagine healthcare. The challenge is to maximise it to disrupt health and move the needle of healthcare access, disease outcomes and global mortality. That’s the very definition of changing the world, and pharma can certainly play its part.

2020 vision

“If the 2020s are to be a breakthrough decade for global health, we’re going to need to push the envelope of creative communications,” said Claire Gillis. “That means thinking and doing things differently, and forming better, deeper and more trusted partnerships with all our customers.

Certainly, the tech revolution will continue to open up new routes to patients, unlocking services that promise to redefine health delivery models, extend access and transform care. If we get it right, it will reset the compass of healthcare, helping us to shift from expensive, reactive care, focused on the treatment of disease, to more predictive and preventative models that get to the person before they become the patient.

These new models will be contingent on the better use of information. To get there, we have to win the argument on personal data. That means building trust in what we do and why we do it. And it compels us to demonstrate the value of sharing data to create personalised solutions to the problems our customers want us to solve. Fundamentally, these solutions won’t work without compelling communications that signpost audiences to the innovations that can help them. The killer ingredient will be creativity.

“The leaders of tomorrow will be those who recognise the power of marketing, and take the best of all the sciences, not least medical science, computer science and behaviour science, to piece together creative solutions that solve clear and meaningful, customer-centred goals. If we do that, we can transform health.”

As pharma embarks on a new decade determined to play its part in improving global health, the key to its success begins and ends with the customer. Understanding and insight is everything. However, while having an aligned purpose will undoubtedly open the door to new customers, it is creativity that will help you walk through it and stay there for the duration. Marketing can change the world. If you don’t believe it, ask an elephant.

Chris Ross is a freelance journalist specialising in the pharmaceutical and healthcare industries

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Author: Roky