After over 20 years of developing communications for consumer brands, I have recently started working with a Health team. It’s been the steepest learning curve I’ve ever been on in my career. This is partly due to the medical language that I’m desperately trying to learn, but mainly it’s because, for better or worse, the world of pharma comms frequently feels a world away from its consumer comms cousin.

So, using the wisdom of my ignorance, here are three things I think consumers can learn from the world of healthcare, followed by three things healthcare can learn from consumers.

What can consumer comms learn from the world of healthcare/pharma comms?

1. Obsession with the product

The fundamental role of any marketing is to convince someone that your option is better than all the other options they have available to them. The key difference with pharma is that the target audience - usually Healthcare Professionals (HCPs) - have to be able to justify exactly why they made their choice. This forces a level of product interrogation that I am in awe of.

Sir Nigel Bogle says “Interrogate a thing to within an inch of its life, it will reveal its true essence”. However, increasingly consumer brands are falling into the trap of assuming that in the post-USP world we live, there’s nothing interesting to say about the product, so they look elsewhere for inspiration. This all too frequently leads to the morass of ‘lifestyle’ comms.

2. Bringing together diverse teams of experts

Linked to the point above, and as I’m rapidly finding out, you can’t bluff your way in Healthcare. This means that you need a diverse range of experts all working together to achieve the same objective. The best thing about having such a group is that you get to different answers. The lack of cognitive and demographic diversity in Adland, along with the resulting homogeneous overall output, has been well documented. The imperative of having different types of expert helps healthcare avoid this

3. Target audience understanding

I’ve written before about the dangers of trying to appeal to everyone, and as a result appealing to no-one. Whilst the sheer scale of the target audience for most consumer brands can frequently result in a ‘lowest common denominator’ approach, I’m delighted to find that this is not the case in Healthcare. Instead there is usually a real understanding of different HCP segments and their consumer journeys. This allows us to focus on specifics, not generalities, and as a result leads to better briefs - as the oft cited plea from the creative department goes “give me the freedom of a tight brief”.

Of course there are things in the world of healthcare comms that, coming from the world of consumer, make me want to garrote myself with a stethoscope.

What can healthcare/pharma comms learn from the world of consumer?

1. Appreciate that people aren’t purely rational beings

Before I started working in healthcare I thought that doctors were like computer programmers - their job was to identify the one correct way to write the code and ‘fix’ a patient. In truth I think they’re more like plumbers. Very rarely is there one correct solution. It takes an incredibly high amount of them ‘feeling that this is the right thing to do’. Whilst the predominance of our emotions in driving decisions is understood (if not always acted upon) in the world of consumer comms, in pharma comms rational persuasion is the default. Of course backing up with rational facts is crucial - as I said earlier, HCPs have to be able to justify exactly why they made their choice. But as Sir John Hegarty says “Information goes in through the heart”. This is as true for doctors as it is for everyone else. Hence the most effective communications should make them ‘feel’ that your brand is the best choice, not merely attempt to rationally convince them so.

2. Focus on what people mean - not just what they say

I believe that a large reason for the focus on rational persuasion in healthcare comms is because of the over reliance on what experts say in research. Again, to the point I made earlier, HCPs have to be able to justify exactly why they made their choice. There is a very strict recruitment protocol, which results in the HCP being made to feel like an expert witness. So if you ask them what they want from a piece of communication, nine times out of ten the answer will be ‘just give me the facts’. It takes a real skill from the best researchers and clients to see beyond the ‘right’ answer they are given in order to see the ‘real’ answer they need to unlock powerful communications.

3. Don’t just focus on the emotional benefit to the patient

Perhaps to compensate for the high levels of rational persuasion in healthcare comms, clients and agencies typically use the emotional benefit to the patient as the creative springboard. The issue with doing this is that for the vast majority of most drugs, this emotional patient benefit is essentially the same - freedom from illness. That’s why you see an unfeasible number of pharma ads showing patients freewheeling downhill on a bike, or smiling inanely as they stroll along the beach. I agree that the best communications are built on an insight - but that doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be a consumer insight. Many successful advertising campaigns have used a product or brand insight as the springboard to create emotionally engaging comms.

John Harrison is managing partner at BBH London