Hey, sales reps. Doctors aren't robots, so give them some love, P&G Health executive says

Cannes Lions Health outdoor shot
P&G Health's physician marketing revamp was dissected onstage at Lions Health. (Staton)

CANNES, FRANCE—Forget the charts and graphs, sales reps. Lead with your heart instead. That’s the message from Attila Cansun, chief marketing officer for Merck brands at the newly rebranded P&G Health.

After developing a marketing framework for consumers he calls LoveBrands, Cansun and his team are using a similar evaluation-and-revamp for the company’s physician relationships. One stat they zeroed in on was this: Some 80% of OTC sales rep presentations center on scientific data and graphs representing it.

“We have seen a variety of practices in dealing with doctors, from business partners to customers to, worst-case, cash cows,” Cansun said during a Tuesday session here, but one commonality was the fact-heavy approach—in essence, “treating doctors like robots with no ability to process anything but data and graphs.”

The solution? Remembering that doctors got into medicine to help patients. P&G Health developed patient profiles to use when talking to docs about its drugs and revamped each brand’s design, imagery and iconography to appeal to them, whether in branded or unbranded communications.

One example is Dolo-Neurobion, one of the drugs in its pain portfolio, with almost 90% of its business in the prescription drug arena. Its packaging and promo materials were bland, indistinct. It was competing with hundreds of painkillers “without a differentiated proposition,” noted Justyna Dettmer, who heads up healthcare provider communications for the Merck brands within P&G Health.

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So after some research, the team pivoted toward one distinction that seemed to resonate with opinion leaders: Dolo-Neurobion as a treatment for “mixed pain,” or treating muscle pain and nerve pain at the same time. And in revamping the branding, the team turned from talking about ingredients and the scientific case for them and toward a “visual experience” to draw doctors in.

For its color scheme, the company drew from the “pain scale” commonly displayed in clinics—a series of emojis ranging from a green, smiling face through yellow, not-so-happy expressions to, finally, a red, miserable one. Dolo-Neurobion packages were emblazoned with a ribbon shaded in green, yellow and red. That same ribbonlike design graced everything from scientific papers distributed to doctors to unbranded webinars to the branded materials sales reps shared during clinic visits.

Among those materials were case studies of archetypal patients to encapsulate the science in a relatable way: Sara, who suffers from neck pain; Julian, an injured athlete who’d developed muscle spasms; and Marisol, debilitated by joint pain. “The key for us was to focus on the patient, to make the science relevant to the everyday life of the doctor or pharmacist,” Dettmer said. The materials illustrated the sort of health problems they saw every day “and how our product could play a role.”

The company created two animations, one for doctors and one for pharmacists, to illustrate the physiology of mixed pain and how Dolo-Neurobion’s active ingredients could attack it. The physician version zoomed through anatomy and talked method of action, while the pharmacist version was a simple line-drawing animation that illustrated the ways mixed pain presented itself.

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“We put ourselves in the pharmacists’ shoes,” Dettmer said, noting that pharmacists deal with thousands of products in a multitude of fields, from nutritional supplements to cancer drugs, and hundreds of customers stream in and out of their shops every day. The Dolo-Neurobion presentation needed to be “easily digestible, straight to the point and simple,” she said.

Though the idea had been to focus on building a brand, rather than boosting sales, revenue from the product grew. Over three years, the business grew by more than 30%. And specifically to the brand-building point, the company’s research with healthcare professionals showed Dolo-Neurobion wasn’t just a respected product anymore, but one that hooked them emotionally.

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The bottom line? To really connect with healthcare providers, pharma marketers need to put brands over business, focus on patients and treat doctors as human beings. “Delight, don’t drain,” Cansun said, quoting a mantra he uses to describe the three-point approach. 

"Can we not have the ambition to put a smile on a doctor’s face?" Cansun said, offering up a challenge to fellow marketers. "Can we have each doctor look forward to every visit from a particular healthcare company?"