Once upon a time in pharma: New storytelling strategies help messages stick—inside the company and out

A still image from "Instant Doctor," a short film that's one of The Bloc ad agency's successful storytelling efforts in healthcare. It's currently up for a handful of awards. (The Bloc)

Imagine Broadway actors putting on a short production or a Cartoon Network-like animation for internal corporate communications. Now imagine that happening inside a pharma company.

The Bloc ad agency’s new unit The Bloc Storytellers is forging that path. While half its work is aimed at physicians and consumers, the other half is internal work targeted at healthcare and pharma employees.

It recently took on two internal projects for Boehringer Ingelheim, for instance, to create more engaging and effective content for its workforce.

Tapping tactics that are the opposite of staid and standard corporate videos—talking heads in suits or robotic voices walking employees through PowerPoint presentations—has made BI’s messages “more sticky" with employees, said Kimberly Raia, senior associate director of cardiometabolic marketing at Boehringer Ingelheim.

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“Using the storytelling method has really helped us drive home our messages,” she said. “The emotional aspect is what gets people to remember what you’re telling them."

She added, "If we don’t have strong internal communications, the strategy you build out does not get executed evenly and uniformly, or even at all. You have to get people to believe in the strategy, you have to get people to understand it and be fired up to execute on it."

While Raia declined to reveal specifics of the internal work, she said BI also is working with The Bloc Storytellers on a physician-facing marketing effort.

The Bloc Storytellers group officially debuted last month with a plan to deliver Hollywood to healthcare—high quality productions with strong narratives and emotional pull. It's currently working on its own casting call for creatives from film, theater and TV to join its team.

Craig Kabrhel, VP and executive producer of The Bloc Storytellers, said, “While the internal audience doesn’t necessarily have a broader audience, it still has importance because of the difference it makes to the success of the product—whether sales rep or internal marketing teams—to help them get their point across.”

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The Bloc also has plenty of external work that makes a point as well. The agency is shortlisted for 10 Clio Health Awards, including for a futuristic short film, “Instant Doctor,” that celebrates the value of real-life doctors and healthcare workers.

Storytelling isn't a brand-new phenomenon in pharma. Consider TV ads featuring patient stories from people with chronic conditions, for instance, or online influencers using social media to tell their own or loved ones' stories.

Hollywood and Broadway production levels have crept into the pharma industry as well.

Johnson & Johnson's sponsored documentary "5B" about the nurses in the first AIDS ward in the U.S. won numerous awards in 2019, including a Cannes Grand Prix. Aspiring Broadway teens gathered the summer before to create a first-ever "Hemophilia" musical led by veteran directors and performers in New York City.