Bayer, ViiV and RB challenge limits of pharma marketing creativity with innovative thinking, executions and media

With Alka Seltzer rockets, off-Broadway shows and cold-and-flu brand loungewear, who says pharma marketing can’t be creative? Not Bayer, RB and GlaxoSmithKline’s ViiV Healthcare. The companies' modern marketing methods are upending traditional—and often formulaic—industry advertising efforts.

Executives from the three companies recently discussed pharma's creativity in general, along with specific efforts that included the Alka Seltzer rocket competitions (Bayer), off-Broadway shows (ViiV) and a SickWear clothing line (RB), at Fierce Pharma Marketing’s Digital Pharma Innovation Week.

While there’s no single recipe for creative success, the three marketers did agree that authenticity and listening are key ingredients. In the case of listening, that means not only to employees and agency partners, but also to the people and communities in the conditions they serve.

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“It has to be authentic and real. Anyone who continues to think they can put out programs that just sells to people is shortsighted in so many regards,” Ray Kerins Jr., Bayer senior vice president and head of corporate affairs, said. “Show me you’re true, and people will have a greater level of belief in your company and your product.”

Marc Meachem, ViiV’s head of external affairs in North America, said one important way to neutralize potential internal barriers to creativity is to share the stories and journeys of the patients. When the whole organization is “awash in the experience of the people who take our medicines,” unlocking creativity happens naturally, he said.

Claudine Patel, RB’s head of marketing in North America, works to maintain a similar focus on serving consumers and educating them about keeping healthy. That transparency builds trust and permission for cold-and-flu brand Mucinex to be an authority.

Although RB recently notched a 24-hour sellout of its first-ever Mr. Mucus-branded SickWear lounge clothing, Patel said her favorite recent work was the purpose-driven campaign with well-known illustrator Noma Bar.

RELATED: RB brand Mucinex encourages healthy practices around COVID-19

The campaign began early in the COVID-19 pandemic with engaging creative and messages about wearing masks and social distancing. The second iteration reminded people why staying home to prevent spread is important with the theme “Be a hero. Be boring.” As outbreaks continued, RB put up Noma Bar outdoor installations and gave out masks in hot spots such as Florida.

“It elevated the conversation by being creative, so that the messages cut though in working with an artist, and through the right social channels where we thought it was relevant—outdoor when it was relevant, social media when it was relevant and experiential when it was relevant,” she said.

ViiV’s award-winning immersive theatrical show “As Much As I Can” faced a different challenge when the pandemic struck and forced live performances to be canceled. ViiV worked with its agency to quickly pivot to a virtual podcast platform to continue the art, fashion and actor connections. The podcast series, “Being Seen,” launched in October as a 10-episode series featuring the experiences of individual Black gay and queer men across creative art fields.

RELATED: GSK's ViiV Healthcare launches new podcast with stories of Black gay and queer men

Kerins offered a handful of examples of creativity across Bayer marketing, including its now annual Alka-Rocket Contest for college students who compete for a $30,000 prize by building 100-tablet Alka Seltzer-fueled missiles; the edible billboard shaped like the St. Louis arch it put up after its Monsanto acquisition was finalized; and, more recently,  its “Why We Science” effort, which launched last fall.

While the Bayer team gets inspiration from patients, advocates and even other outside industries,  they also regularly hold internal “What if” sessions, Kerins said. Employees and agency partners throw out ideas that may or may not be possible. That’s how Bayer’s eventual first-ever concert sponsorship of country singer Luke Bryan’s Farm Tour began, for instance.

“Creativity comes from all corners, and our job as managers is to listen,” he said.