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Perspectives on Formulary Storytelling

Posted by Matt Breese on Sep 20, 2016

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Who doesn’t like a good story? A Star Wars epic. A novel you just can’t put down. A news story about a lost puppy. Stories are just as much a marketing tool as they are fodder for the big screen, books and news media. Brands like Guinness, Dove and Nike often use storytelling to promote their brands in softer, unexpected and more memorable ways.

Quite frequently, these ads aren’t overtly selling the brand (“buy our beer” or “our soap will make you smell better”), rather they are presenting stories that make the viewer want to be part of that particular brand.

The question is: Can storytelling work in healthcare?

The simple answer is “yes,” but it will take a bit of messaging finesse and careful targeting. Storytelling can be effective for all segments of healthcare — health plans, pharmacy benefits managers, providers and patients. But the story and method of delivery cannot be the same for each segment.

Storytelling for Patients

Recent research by Evoke Health found that patients with chronic pain wanted to see themselves in control, rather than as victims of their pain. With that knowledge, Evoke Health’s marketing team created a story that began with the patient’s challenges and transitioned to a believable ending that showed the patient living as healthy a life as possible. The story showed Evoke Health becoming the patient’s partner in achieving that positive outcome.

Can that approach work for pharma? Once again, the answer is “yes,” even though it is a bit more challenging in an environment characterized by regulations that control pharma advertising and the potential ban on direct-to-consumer advertising called for by the American Medical Association.

Therefore, pharma should exercise caution in all of its advertising, but especially when using storytelling for patient outreach. Messaging that is accurate and that doesn’t overstate or oversell the product is critical to an effective patient-focused story.

A forgettable TV ad is one that has a glowing story about a patient successfully using a particular medication, which is followed by a 15- or 30-second voiceover of disclaimers. Those disclaimers may be a legal necessity, but too often they are the last thing the viewer hears. The same is true for a magazine ad that is bright and cheery, but is followed by several pages of “mouse type” that spells out every possible side effect or disqualifier. The unintended consequence may be the viewer and reader deciding it’s not worth talking about with his or her provider because they have not gained the emotional connection or the necessary information to want that conversation.

Storytelling should blend emotion and rational thought to produce a desired action.

A compelling story uses emotion to engage the patient, builds cautionary language into the body of the ad and ends with a stipulated call to action.

“The complexity of pharma product information, combined with the emotional trauma associated with illness and diagnosis, as well as the patient’s more empowered role in his or her healthcare, can all be addressed successfully through good storytelling,” says Cheryl Lubbert, president and CEO of Health Perspectives Group and co-found, Health Stories Project.

Unfortunately, rising costs and several negative stories affects the reputation of the industry as a whole, which makes patient-focused storytelling a bit more complicated. It is vitally important in direct-to-consumer advertising to understand your patient audience and to focus on stories that reinforce the bottom line — drug therapies improve and save lives.

Storytelling for Providers

Marketing to providers is a challenging, yet necessary, marketing strategy for introducing new medications to the marketplace or maintaining market share for existing medications. As both access to generics and competition among new therapeutics increases, good storytelling for providers may be an effective way to differentiate brands, products and services.

But providers are not patients.

They aren’t looking for or expecting an emotional response to a pharma story. They are pragmatists; they want facts and linkage to their patients. Clinical case studies and stories about clinical trials that are laced with anonymized patient information and outcomes data are effective storytelling mechanisms for providers.

The objective of provider storytelling is to have the reader relate the story to one or more patients. A successful clinical case study introduces the patient’s condition, describes the treatment decision-making process and produces evidence to support prescribing a particular therapeutic.

Clinical trials storytelling may focus on a particular trial site to provide insight into the character of the trial and the evidence-based outcomes that produced approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Storytelling can also be effective in showing providers the support that is available to them and their patients through pharma.

This kind of storytelling is “educational marketing.” It is selling a product not through messaging that screams “prescribe me,” but by defining the product’s use and value in real-world terms that are meaningful to a provider who is looking for clinical solutions for his or her patients.

Storytelling for Health Plans and Pharmacy Benefits Managers

Health plans and PBMs benefit from storytelling in much the same way that providers benefit. They need a story that focuses on outcomes and value, rather than emotion. To attain formulary status, the story must intrinsically show a comparative — and competitive — benefit for employers and payers. If pricing could be an issue, the story must show an off-setting benefit through additional support and/or clinical effectiveness. Incorporating both administrative and clinical storytelling is an effective strategy for health plans and PBMs.

Storytelling isn’t easy. Finding the right story for each target audience can be a time-consuming effort, which may require tapping into some long-term, quality relationships with hospitals and clinical trial sites. Pharma has compelling, experience-rich stories that can easily be used to sell a brand, products and supportive services — it’s just a matter of finding them and sharing them in the most effective way.


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Topics: Industry Trends, Branding & Marketing