Cathy Taylor, WARC’s US Commissioning Editor, introduces the latest installment in WARC’s Spotlight US series, which examines the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on US healthcare marketing.

This article is part of the May 2021 Spotlight US series, "How the pandemic has changed US healthcare marketing." Read more

A lot has changed in US healthcare marketing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. And a lot of old problems remain very much the same.

On the one hand, post-pandemic, the US healthcare category will still be the same crazy quilt of cost overruns, cutting-edge treatments and mind-numbing complexity.

But, on the other hand, COVID-19 has undoubtedly shaken the industry to its foundations. Some changes, like the emergence of telehealth, represent a positive breakthrough, but the pandemic also laid bare the entrenched healthcare inequities facing the LGBTQ, Black, Hispanic, Latinx and Indigenous communities, as well as a widespread distrust of science. This upheaval creates a potential white space for brands to highlight purpose and, perhaps, help create system-level change.

Against this backdrop, pharma and healthcare brands should consider:

  1. Using the renewed power of purpose-driven corporate brands to embrace stakeholder capitalism across the system’s many constituencies.
  2. Helping re-orient the US healthcare industry around patient outcomes.
  3. Looking outside the category for ways to build deeper emotional connections.
  4. Shifting toward more data-driven solutions and behavioral science to drive better outcomes.
  5. Realizing that health and safety is currency that can be used to rebuild consumer trust across categories.

Even though there is much work to be done to build a better, more equitable system, it’s important to remember that the competition-driven US healthcare market is an immense contradiction, because it also achieves monumental successes. This same country, where almost 600,000 people have died of COVID, took the lead role in creating vaccines of unimagined efficacy in record time, and then managed to distribute those vaccines so quickly that, within a matter of months, almost 160 million of its residents have received at least one dose.

So, in this edition of the Spotlight US series we also explore those contradictions, as the system’s successes lend power, particularly to pharma brands.

Competition is at the heart of US healthcare

The truth is that “the American focus on competition as an inherent good … lies at the heart of what makes the US healthcare system baffling to outsiders,” as Brad Davidson of Havas Health and You writes in his Spotlight article on how and why the US healthcare system works the way it does.

That fact creates a throughline to why healthcare is so central to the US marketing ecosystem, and is one of the nation’s biggest categories. Indeed, pharma and healthcare is, by a substantial margin, a larger part of adspend in the US than any other country for which WARC tracks the category, coming in at 7.6% of overall expenditure.

And, at $11.1 billion in spending per year, it is also the fifth-largest ad category in the US.

However, all that money doesn’t usually translate into great creative, especially when it comes to direct-to-consumer TV pharma advertising. And while it’s commonplace to blame the formulaic nature of these ads on regulatory factors, pharma creative can, and should, do better. As Intouch Group’s John Kenny explains, “The focus on communicating product efficacy overshadows the more fundamental task of being noticed and remembered.”

Mike Cassell of MullenLowe suggests one way to break out of this negative cycle is to look to other categories for ways to build emotional connection. Ads should “explain the emotional benefit of the drug that only someone with that condition would understand,” he argues.

Pharma and healthcare need to tackle the biggest problems

But treating pharma like just another marketing category can only take you so far. Healthcare, after all, is about life and death, and those stakes have been tragically reaffirmed during the pandemic.

Publicis Health’s Susan Manber points out that, as humans, we are currently focused on the very bottom of Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs”, which is centered on physiological requirements like air, food, water, and shelter. “For now,” she writes, “health and safety will continue to be currency that brands can use to re-establish trust with anxious consumers.”

The long specter of healthcare also explains why so many articles in this Spotlight spend time wrestling with healthcare inequities, from making care more accessible to dealing with the fact that Black Americans are under-represented in clinical trials. As Amy Gómez, of Klick Health notes, “Healthcare marketers are facing a momentous inflection point” as they try to address these pressing issues.

Better healthcare outcomes are meant to be the entire point of the system, but that isn’t always the reality. As a consequence, there’s a steady drumbeat concerning how the system might be reimagined. In its mainstream form, the emphasis rests on maintaining the benefits of competition while providing greater access and better results.

As Blue Spoon Consulting’s John Singer explains, this will require “transitioning an entire economic system from fee-for-service to value-based care – [which] could lead to $1 trillion of cumulative savings in the United States alone in the coming decade.”

How might that play out? To several Spotlight authors, pharma brands could play a central role. Hall & Partners’ Stacy Vaughn sees the big drug companies’ future as embracing stakeholder capitalism, building on new partnerships they’ve formed during COVID to “potentially become the glue across healthcare relationships.”

For Carl Turner and Kameron Block of Klick Health, it will come down to purpose, as most consumers and healthcare practitioners are eying how companies in the category address it. “Imagine a future,” they write, “Where more corporate brands in the biotech and pharma space answer their call.”

The rebirth of the corporate pharma brand

So where do pharma enterprises come in? Everywhere! Because their role in the greater healthcare system looms so large they have unrivaled clout to make it better – and that may end up being exerted through the power of their brands.

As Vaughn notes, pharma brands have gained trust and legitimacy through the pandemic, with Pfizer and AstraZeneca, both vaccine manufacturers, recently landing in the top ten on the Conscious Brands 100, a ranking compiled by Hall & Partners and Wolff Olins that assessed over 220 major corporations in terms of their ethical, sustainability and moral credentials.

Similarly, Turner and Block write that the success of the COVID vaccines is leading pharma brands back to the concept of the “branded house,” where the strong, corporate, purpose-driven brand plays a prominent role over the various branded drugs the “house” produces.

Smarter marketing will be needed during COVID-19 and beyond

Coupled with the return of big corporate brands is the need to drill down to a granular level in order to influence behavior for all the players in the healthcare ecosystem. GSK’s Jim DeLash, who specializes in B2B vaccines, says that better segmentation should be a big determinant of success. “I think we make mistakes in going too broad to an audience,” he suggests.

Segmentation may also be the path for reaching vaccine-hesitant consumers, according to Havas Media’s Michael Hurwitz, who examines the different drivers that roll up to some 25% of Americans being disinterested in getting vaccinated.

Behavioral science will play a role too, as subtle tweaks and nudges can have major ramifications for whether or not people get flu shots or receive cardiac referrals, as Crawford Hollingworth from Behavioural Architects notes.

Looking ahead, increasing consumer expectations for personalization should move the category in the direction of data-driven marketing that can meet each individual where they are. According to Brennan Mason of Revive Health, “A data-driven-marketing strategy enhances the consumer’s healthcare experience by unveiling individual consumer needs and enabling marketers to cater to the full journey, from first impression to every interaction thereafter.”