‘Not a category you can be a tourist in’: marketers on healthcare’s consumerization
With shifts in talent and regulation (and breakout award wins for creativity), is healthcare marketing becoming more mainstream? Leaders from the sector think so.
Is healthcare marketing becoming more mainstream? And if it is, which agencies are best-placed to succeed? / National Cancer Institute via Unsplash
Last week, The Drum named healthcare-specialist agency Area 23 the most creative agency in the world, beating out all others in our World Creative Rankings.
The win is a signal of changes afoot in the health marketing world. Traditionally considered a specialist corner of the industry with its own regulations, approaches, and flows of talent, we’re seeing that corner expand and claim more attention. The Drum spoke to five leaders in the field to chart this shifting topography.
Health marketing’s moment
To healthcare marketers, recent shifts in their sector toward marketing’s center aren’t all that new. As Nigel Downer, head of Jack Morton’s own specialist healthcare agency Jack Health US, puts it, “We’ve been talking about the consumerization of healthcare for years, but that’s only picking up speed.”
Speaking of recent years, the Covid context is inescapable. The healthcare world is wider than big pharma, but the reputational shifts for health workers and drug providers since 2020 have been enormous. “Prior to Covid, pharma’s reputation was pretty poor,” says Downer. “Of all industries, it was below the government and below banks. It got a nice boost over the last couple of years but has already fallen back to pre-pandemic levels. The thing that has changed is that the spotlight is on those brands in a way that it wasn’t before… Everyone wants to know what these brands stand for. There’s a huge opportunity there; it’s a whitespace for bands to embrace.”
That societal shift can be read in the tea leaves of the financial world, says Corrina Safeio, group managing director at health shop Evoke Mind+Matter. “It’s really playing out in share prices,” says Safeio.
“Mainstream stock reporters are talking about AstraZeneca, Novo Nordisk, and Pfizer stocks in the Sunday papers; talking to mainstream investors about investing in pharma. That’s a huge shift. Their share prices are doing pretty well, creating the budgets that are powering into our industry. You can see the cycle of impact from trust going up in the corporate reputation metrics for these big pharma brands.”
With brand expectations increasing across the board, even health products can’t skate by on quality alone. As Downer says, “It’s no longer enough to have a good product; you have to actually align your brand with people's personal value.”
Another influence, according to Jennifer Webb director of strategy at TrunkBBI, comes from the marketing industry itself. “The consumer world and B2B have massively influenced what’s happening in healthcare,” she says. With those macro shifts, marketers have become savvier at borrowing techniques from other consumer sectors.
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So you want to be a healthcare marketer?
There’s another macroeconomic idea that’s driving growth and competition in the space: the suggestion that health is a ‘recession-proof’ sector. Amid storms of seemingly endless financial turbulence, marketers are not alone in hoping that healthcare might be a safe port.
So, should every marketer be looking to healthcare for a safer dollar? For Dan Russell, managing director at healthcare-focused creative agency Seven Stones, “It’s an amazingly interesting and important space. That’s probably a better reason than being ‘recession-proof’. But there are lots of things to weigh up. Necessary understanding on the product level is far more complex [than in other sectors]. Whenever you go into a new category, you have to learn about it… but healthcare is on another level”.
Fresh entrants, in other words, can’t expect an easy ride. And as Safeio says, nor can they expect that excellent creative alone will see them through: “You can’t wing it – you can’t just throw creativity at everything. You need specialist strategists, client teams and medical people – even over-the-counter brands have their own regulations. You have to be able to play within the confines of the regulation; there is no gray.”
So bandwagon jumpers must arrive with full knowledge of both the promises and the risks of the sector, says our panel. Here’s Jack Health’s Downer again: “You have to bring a passion for it. That’s table stakes. It’s not a category you can be a tourist in.”
Mixed teams and production lags
Our panel itself tells a story of the diversity of players in the space: bespoke health agency Seven Stones; global networked specialist Evoke Mind+Matter; major agency spinout Jack Health; and indies with strong health creds TrunkBBI and Coegi.
Are incumbents or upstarts best positioned to win? For our panel, it’ll be whoever best brings together the best of healthcare with the best from the broader consumer world. “You can’t de-risk yourself if you don’t have the right team,” says Downer. Or as Webb puts it, the victors will be those who are able to bring together “that lovely combination” of dual-background talent: proper creative firepower from the consumer world; scientific and regulatory nous from the health world.
For Colin Duft, an account strategy director at Coegi, there’s a much more straightforward test for who will come out on top in this freshly competitive market. “It's easy to say it'll be those who come up with innovative ideas (and can plan and put them together). But in the healthcare vertical, we’ve all experienced, from a production perspective, the lag in getting to market. I think it’ll be those that can come up with a production model that can bring a swiftness to market; getting ideas out there not just at speed, but with robust pieces of content to test and scale and to understand what’s making an impact in volume.”
Consider that a gauntlet thrown down, if you like: those with the best of the consumer and healthcare worlds, and who can address a familiar production-market lag in healthcare will be in an enviable position. The reward? Success in “one of the most rewarding industries you can work with,” says Webb. As Russell puts it, “do you want a case study that says ‘I sold x chocolate bars’ or do you want a case study that says ‘I saved y lives’?”
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Coegi is an independent digital agency providing services across digital strategy, media buying, paid social, search and influencer campaigns. We bring together people, platforms and tech partners to create custom marketing solutions focused on your business results.Find out more
We are Evoke Mind ‘PLUS’ Matter. The ‘plus’ is important to us because we are all about offering more for our clients and employees.Find out more
The best work comes from teams.Mixed-up teams.Find out more
No one sets out to be average. No one aspires to be ordinary. Jack Morton is an award-winning global brand experience agency that exists to reimagine what an experience can be. We do that by pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in every format — virtual, live or hybrid.Find out more
TrunkBBI is an award-winning integrated agency made up of 70 specialist thinkers, creators, analysts, influencers and technologists. Inspired by insights, we’re a place that puts creatives and activation specialists together — storytellers and strategists, designers and data scientists. We capture your audience in the perfect moment with perfect content, producing startling results.Find out more