There is perhaps no industry quite as ubiquitous as consumer health. Every home has its medicine cabinet of supplies: in spring, we stock up on allergy medications, and in winter, cold and flu remedies, armed against every sort of respiratory and inflammatory affliction. Despite its virtues, the sector has developed a reputation for clinical, take-one-pill-twice-a-day messaging that, while informative, reinforces the consensus that the consumer health category is impersonal. Or worse: boring.
“It shouldn’t be that way,” says Patricia Corsi, global chief marketing and information officer of Bayer’s consumer health division. “Healthcare is predicated on improving people’s quality of life. So why is it struggling to connect with the very consumers it wants to help?”
Corsi blames a yawning creativity gap which has become ingrained in medical marketing. She argues that humanising the industry is an essential first step towards breaking down barriers and engaging communities that are often overlooked or underserved by the system.
That means companies need creatives at the helm who understand the real issues consumers face. “But there’s a wrong way and a right way to be creative in this context,” Corsi says. “Bold, inventive campaigns should be used to solve a problem. Marketing teams should never feel the need to invent a problem because someone thinks they’ve had a ‘brilliant idea’.”
Brands don’t need big pots of money to deliver memorable and impactful campaigns. She continues: “I have seen amazing work coming out of brands that had very little budgets, and I have seen very poor work coming from brands with unlimited budgets.” Regardless, creativity should be seen as non-negotiable.
Trust, respect and engagement
Across healthcare marketing, many industry professionals still fall back on instructive or directive campaigns. But according to Corsi, the past 18 months have been transformational for the industry, with creativity hotting up.
“This is an opportunity to keep asking ourselves why we’re striving to be more creative,” she says. “What’s the rationale behind it? Does it serve the community, the people, and the business? If not, it might be time to go back to the drawing board.”
The industry is uniquely positioned to deconstruct taboos around sensitive subjects, including women’s health, mental illness, and ageing – there is a litany of deeply complex topics that deserve to be discussed. Being brave is key here, Corsi explains.
That philosophy led her to build Bayer’s Vagina Academy campaign for Canesten. As well as delivering business results, the project encouraged women globally to talk more openly about intimate health. Beginning in Brazil, the Academy has since expanded worldwide.
In a groundbreaking turn of events, Corsi’s team even managed to officially remove the censorship of the word “vagina” across a number of online platforms, marking a breakthrough in the movement to educate women and girls on the topic.
Stories like this are a reminder that creative consumer health brands are capable of redefining the status quo.
Regulation and creativity go hand in hand
Healthcare marketing must remain in tight lockstep with regulation. The trick, Corsi says, is to engage strategic partners and regulatory teams early in campaign planning. Doing the work now and asking for approval later is a risky play that seldom pays off.
“Besides,” she continues, “when you involve brand partners and bring them on a journey with you, they’re more inclined to look for solutions versus being a ‘yes or no’ function. This is where we see the strongest results.”
Creative healthcare storytelling, done right, sticks with consumers and delivers life-changing lessons while keeping regulators happy. Corsi shares an example of a Bayer campaign for Aspirin predating her tenure at the company: the Hero Smiths campaign, targeting heart health. Leveraging the widespread presence of the surname “Smith” in North America, the company crafted a narrative around the idea that if everyone named Smith carried a single Aspirin with them, millions of people could potentially aid someone experiencing a heart attack.
The campaign harnessed testimonials from individuals who had lived due to the timely administration of Aspirin. Corsi recalls: “You had very emotional stories, but they were linked to very powerful healthcare insights.”
The pandemic marked a sea change in how consumers interact with healthcare. The industry, which has traditionally used science as a point of difference, took centre stage in a new way.
“We need to make sure we don’t lose this opportunity,” says Corsi. “Discussion of science-led self-care is more acceptable now among friends, family members, and co-workers. It makes sense for brands to go a step further and talk to people, not like they’re doctors, but like they’re informed citizens.”
AI’s role is expanding quickly
The next frontier for healthcare marketing is how it will co-exist with artificial intelligence. Generative AI, text-to-image and text-to-video capabilities could have a transformative impact, allowing marketers to feel more comfortable breaking the mould.
That said, Corsi jokes: “I haven’t seen any machine with a good sense of humour. And humour is one of the cornerstones of communication, business growth, and creativity.”
AI will primarily tackle repetitive tasks offering teams more time to focus on research. This rigour of spending time understanding audiences, challenges, and contexts will pay the biggest dividends in the long run.
“Without those things, you can’t write a great creative brief. And without that, it’s much harder for creatives to do their job. Rigour is ingredient number one,” Corsi says.
Brand building and creativity must also cater to short- and long-term outlooks. There’s an opportunity when talking about vitamins, for example, to help people think in terms of prevention and seek solutions before problems occur.
“Every product in consumer health is meant to help someone live their lives better, to cure something, to help them enjoy life at its fullest. But we tend, as humans, to act after something happens. We are reactive,” Corsi explains. “Because of that, messaging that leans too heavily on the positives or negatives can backfire. There’s a balance to be struck.”
Looking to the future of healthcare marketing, Corsi is advocating for creativity twinned with science. “We need to humanise the industry,” she says. “Consumer health marketing has been waiting for a shot in the arm for some time. We’re finally seeing progress.”
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