It's Time to Put Direct Back Into DTC

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For anyone who's followed direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription drugs lately, it's obvious that the August 1997 FDA draft guidelines on branded television ads have opened the floodgates to aggressive -- and often confusing -- messages about many prescription brands and diseases that were once relegated to print alone. In fact, more than 50 percent of all DTC spending in now on television, with more than 30 brands joining the TV experiment.


Two years ago, many marketers rejoiced at the opportunity to finally incorporate their drug's brand name with the disease indication on television. At long last, we could really advertise our brands directly (albeit with the required warnings, contra-indications and adequate provision) without having to hedge about the brand's name or the product's benefits.


And direct marketers were likely just as excited because the guidelines required the inclusion of a toll-free number for consumers to call for product information about the advertised brand. What a great chance for advertisers to build a database of hot prospects for relationship marketing.


However, the experience of the past two years has certainly proved much of this excitement to be misplaced or unrealized. Except for a handful of cases, branded television is not a panacea for brand marketing, but rather a prescription for added spending and uncertain return.


It should now be obvious that the product benefits being promoted in TV ads can conflict greatly with the risks and warnings that need to be verbalized and detailed on the screen. This often leads to significant consumer confusion and can easily result in negative brand image.


In fact, my own cocktail party research suggests that the best remembered copy point from a DTC commercial in 1998 was about "the pill that pregnant women can't touch." Not much of a brand image for Propecia, the systemic drug whose marketers failed to take lessons from its direct marketed hair-growth predecessor Rogaine, or even from their own experience with direct response television for the father of Propecia -- Proscar -- which was highly successful at generating qualified leads in 1994.


Speaking of Rogaine, it seems that in all the excitement of the TV guidelines, much of our industry has forgotten some of the lessons learned from the marketing of that brand, one of the first major DTC players that helped carve the path for consumer advertising nearly a decade ago. The marketers at Upjohn employed all the classic direct marketing tools for their efforts: direct response television, target audience segmentation and incentives for trial and repeat.


These tools were designed to enable relationship marketing for the brand and to help consumers through their barriers, which included embarrassment, denial, cost and uncertainty. And since barriers such as these exist in all conditions or disease states, why are we not using this approach for pharmaceutical brands today?


There are actually several reasons, so the ease of being able to promote the brand directly on television does have some tangible appeal. Our industry has had a difficult time with direct marketing or relationship marketing to consumers because of:


* Limited access to consumer data. This has been very challenging for manufacturers because patient information generally resides with the pharmacy and managed care sectors of the industry, rather than with the manufacturer.


* Our industry lags in information technology. Healthcare is simply behind many other industries in our information technology infrastructure, so it's more difficult to create database-driven marketing programs.


* Regulatory issues. The copy review process to get materials approved makes it more difficult to create and update segmented materials on a timely basis.


* Impatience. Maybe most critical, the need for action is now -- which means there is all too often an urgency to see action, rather than having more of a long-term plan toward a relationship marketing strategy.


But these roadblocks can be overcome, and with the emergence of new technologies, the experiences of the past and the availability of the Internet, the return to relationship marketing is a very appealing proposition. So, here's my plea to get back to the direct response-driven relationship marketing model for prescription drugs:


Consumers need help through their healthcare decision-making process. Their pathway from symptoms to solutions is complex. And yet they are seeking answers in remarkable numbers as evidenced by the tremendous explosion of health-seeking consumers searching the Net.


Let's be smart and take this cue to get back to relationship marketing, either traditionally via direct response television and direct response print, or progressively, by using the Internet to attract, motivate, profile and market back to health-seeking consumers. Now is the time to bring this area to a new level of sophistication for the pharmaceutical industry. The Internet offers the greatest opportunity we've ever had to efficiently develop an ongoing relationship marketing initiative with target consumers and to help move them through their decision pathway. And if we don't take advantage of this for our prescription medications, we can be sure that the alternative medicines or other therapies will find a way to do so.


Together, we can move the industry in a stronger direction toward direct marketing and better, more quantifiable results.


Frank Hone is executive vice president at Rubin Ehrenthal & Associates, the DTC agency of Healthworld, New York. His e-mail address is fhone@healthworld.net.
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