Lions Health preview: Consumer ad agency for Absolut, Audi talks up creative risks for pharma

Cannes Lions Health pavilion - Palais ll
Cannes Lions Health kicks off next week with talks and panels including Bartle Bogle Hegarty's consumer creative ideas for pharma. (Beth Snyder Bulik)

Bartle Bogle Hegarty’s roster of literal A-list clients—Audi, Absolut and AstraZeneca—earns it center stage at Lions Health next week with a consumer-to-pharma creative crossover pitch.

Executives from the well-regarded creative shop, also known for brand work for Levi’s and Tesco, will advise pharma about taking the right kinds of risks.

“A lot of pharma (advertising) feels quite the same,” said BBH managing partner John Harrison, noting the numerous variations on beach walks and bike rides, itself something of a cliche. “In the world of consumer, you can’t afford to do that because you’d be invisible.”

Building a brand in pharma is incredibly important—drug brands have a shelf life of exclusivity, and it's the strength of the brand that makes it endure, he said. Studies show communications that make a brand seem different can spur better sales. 

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Unfortunately, pharma brand-builders often key into a feature of their products that's guaranteed to deliver the same old imagery, he said: Companies want to show the emotional benefits of treatment. The problem? That emotional benefit is essentially the same for all drugs—freedom from the disease or symptoms. Cue the confluence of images featuring free, happy and active patients.

Instead, pharma should focus on finding a “proper truth” about a given product. Figure out what is different about the drug and how to bring that to life, Harrison said.

Another point Harrison and his BBH team will make is that it's a mistake to assume doctors and other healthcare providers are perfectly rational. They’re not, he said.

Consider the fact that doctors in Italy smoke at twice the rate as the general population, he pointed out. If all doctors were completely rational, no doctors would smoke, of course. The goal for healthcare professional (HCP) marketing should be to create a specific feeling underpinned by logic rather than to spout facts and expect physicians to act accordingly, he said.

That’s where BBH’s reputation and honed strategic process come in. Its starting point for both consumer and health brands is to identify what competitors are doing. It looks to identify the “zigs” in a category so they can show clients how to “zag,” he said.

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When asked about U.S. pharma advertising specifically, Harrison said U.S. marketers seems to fall into the trap of trying to spend brands out of a sea of sameness. He once heard a U.S. pharma marketer say during a presentation that sales reps go to HCP offices to explain the product, so the ads didn’t have to be creative.

“That’s a fundamental lack of understanding about how people’s brains work—and about the role of communications in making a connection between a brand and whoever the target audience is,” he said.