If pharma really wants to be patient-centric, it needs to show it through its brand message

Patient-centricity may be the industry's new favourite buzzword, but Andy Hayley, managing partner at healthcare agency Loooped Unlimited, says that companies need to align their marketing with a single purpose across audiences – and that patient-centred activity should focus on the individual and cultural benefits of them engaging with any marketing organisation.

"If you say that you're patient-centric but there's a gap between what you say and what you do, people will very quickly cry 'foul'. Taking a more creative approach naturally lends itself to delivering greater social value, which is vital for pharma right now," he says. "The industry doesn't have the best reputation in the world, perhaps deservedly so in some areas, undeservedly so in others, but it doesn't do a very good job of telling people that it actually has a lot of social value."

He cites Abbott Diabetes Care's FreeStyle Libre, a glucose monitor for diabetes patients that eschews finger pricking in favour of a small sensor on the arm. "Their original line was 'Why prick when you can scan?', which is very functional," says Hayley. "It's like saying you should buy a new mobile phone because it has a better camera. We evolved the original message into something that's far more centred on the purpose of the product, which is to allow people with diabetes to get one step closer to normality. That way the company can say, 'We play a role, we have a purpose in that person's life'.

"That creative theme, idea, platform, expression – call it what you will – needs to go through everything right from the start," he says.

This goes beyond social benefits, though. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that giving brands a purpose can lead to better results for the business.

A recent report by EY, The business case for purpose, defined purpose as "an aspirational reason for being which inspires and provides a call to action for an organisation and its partners and stakeholders and provides benefit to local and global society" and found that those companies whose purpose was clearly articulated and understood had higher revenue growth, were more innovative and had more successful initiatives than those who were still developing a purpose or lacked one altogether.

The report also noted that poor communication, especially from top leadership, was one of the main barriers to implementing a purpose, while other barriers included short-term shareholder pressure, systems and infrastructure that are not aligned with long-term purpose, and the lack of performance targets and incentives aligned with purpose.

Speaking at an event for pharma marketers in April, Philip Thomas, CEO of Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, gave some more solid examples of how these different approaches to brands have helped companies in the past: "McDonald's marketers did a very simple piece of research, looking at the return on investment for companies with creative marketing versus non-creative, measured by the awards that they have won," he said. "They found there was a 54 percent higher return on investment from being creative. Heineken recently did a very similar piece of research, and found a 45 percent higher return on investment. So the argument about whether creative, engaging, entertaining work is going to amplify the return on investment is over for many marketers."

Hayley adds: "Having a killer piece of data, a killer statistic, a great licence, really good access, are all seen as being the things that are going to differentiate a product. And that's true, they do, but we would argue that if you underpin all of those things with an expression of why that brand exists, that would actually deliver much more ROI than you would get without it. That has been proved unequivocally in other areas, and now we need to prove it within healthcare too.

"I think pharma has to start taking it seriously because the reduction in numbers of their customer-facing employees mean that they're having to find expressions of their brand elsewhere. Simply pumping multiple channels full of educational content won't be enough because you have to go with an opinion – you have to say how this is relevant and important."