• Transform magazine
  • February 29, 2024


It’s time to get real about brands in big pharma


Joelle Friedland, co-founder and head of client service at creative agency, minds + assembly, writes that healthcare brands need to form relationships with people, both patients and physicians, rather than push functional benefits of a product or service. Healthcare and pharma brands, Friedland argues, often ignore the physical and emotional reality of what a patient might be experiencing.

We’re overloaded with ‘deep and meaningful’ manifestos for commonplace goods and services. But when it comes to the stuff that really matters – like health, medicine, and pharmaceuticals – all too often we’re hit with anodyne platitudes. We need communications that compel, that create not just understanding, but belief.

Today, every brand has the same idea: to make an ‘authentic’ connection with its customers, as people, to show the world that they get it – that they get you. Which is why we end up watching and listening to poetic monologues that deliver the deeply emotional import of all kinds of goods and services, from search engines, mutual funds, jeans and laundry detergent. Everything matters so much!

We’re bombarded with messaging that extols the virtues of a life lived with these products in tow.  Then we come back to Earth with a thud and realise that brighter clothes are nice, but not life changing. It’s manifesto overload. And it’s disingenuous and inauthentic. I don’t want to hear any more about how I can connect to the essence of humanity by purchasing the right pair of denim (regardless of how much I love jeans).

Ironically, those things that actually are life changing, life extending, or even life-saving (health, medicine, and pharmaceuticals), are so often relegated to the bland world of platitudes and mild statements. We often seem to be one step removed from the reality of the situation.

But, this is really tough stuff. Imagine going to bed every night wondering if your body will rebel and your throat will close while you sleep. Or to accept the fact that to live you must hook yourself up to a tube for 16 hours a day. Or even to face going to school acutely aware, at every step, of the acne that has taken over your face. There are real elements of courage here. And, yes, real elements of beauty.

Let’s get real

We recognise that we are not for everyone. In fact, as an agency we’ve turned down business from clients when we could have used the revenue. We’ve also turned down pitches that would have been huge had we won. Some would call this foolish. We like to think of it as essential. We won’t dilute our product. And we’ve found that there are enough clients out there who insist on getting to the raw, beating heart of a disease to find the real story. It’s there that we find stories of courage and beauty, communications that will compel, that will create not just understanding, but belief.

Make a truer connection

Of course, I have a bigger point. It’s that when dealing with the kind of issues that can legitimately claim to be ‘life and death’, so often we see ideas that fail to connect.

Done right, branding in this sector has the power to elevate the experience that people living with a disease can have with a brand, and this can have hugely positive effects, including presenting a genuinely optimistic view of what life could be like with the brand benefits. But you’ve got to confront the reality head on – and find the beauty and authenticity therein.

A new belief system

Also, so many brands in the pharma and healthcare sectors are guilty of pushing the functional benefits of their products, rather than forming meaningful relationships with people to make their lives better.

Brands often ignore the reality of what a person actually experiences, thus minimising the physical and emotional reality. But by showing how someone’s life could look different with a particular brand, and how it could meet their needs and serve a meaningful purpose, pharma and healthcare companies have the potential to build strong, credible relationships. And it works. We know this from experience.