Unbranded pharma ads—what are they good for? Actually quite a bit, marketing panelists say

Toilet Talk Poop Emoji for Allergan
Allergan GI marketer Aimee Lenar used the company's Toilet Talk campaign to illustrate effective use of unbranded advertising at FiercePharmaMarketing Forum in New York. (Allergan)

While unbranded pharma campaigns can be easier to pull off—or at least easier to get through medical and legal review internally—they still need to follow the same marketing rules as those used for branded drugs. Relevant content, well-targeted distribution and measurable return on investment still have to be the goals, a group of panelists told attendees at the first FiercePharmaMarketing Forum last week.

Aimee Lenar, vice president of gastroenterology marketing at Allergan, presented a rundown of her company’s well-received unbranded Toilet Talk campaign, which encouraged people to talk to their doctors about their bowel habits. The effort used humor and frank talk about "poop"—the campaign's preferred term—to help people get past their embarrassment and speak up to physicians.

RELATED: Rapper Common joins Allergan to warn in rhyme—and swirling color—about vision loss

“Unbranded campaigns and content can be particularly helpful when we’re trying to get patients to talk about a condition that may be stigmatized or difficult to talk about with their provider. That’s not to say we just do unbranded, we combine that with brand, and we find it’s most effective when you combine both,” she said.

Her fellow panelists, Chad Parizman, head of social media digital communications at Pfizer, and Joe Shields, senior director of global strategy and innovation at AstraZeneca, also offered examples of their own successful unbranded work.

Parizman talked about Pfizer’s Driven to Discover the Cure unbranded corporate campaign as well as smaller efforts that stemmed from it, including a Dear Scientist content project with The Boston Globe and a social media push around the March for Science to show support for Pfizer scientists participating. The latter effort happened organically and quickly, he noted, with final approval just 48 hours before the marches began in 600 cities last spring.

“The cost of lift is sometimes lower for unbranded so you can be more opportunistic. Something like the March for Science, that wasn’t on someone’s marketing road map for 2017, we didn’t necessarily need data behind it. It was, ‘hey this is happening, our scientists are going to be there. … let’s try something out, and then analyze it.’ And now we know ... we do have that quantitative data that says this works for the next time this comes up,” he said.

RELATED: Pfizer and singer Patti LaBelle 'prank' baby boomers in new pneumonia vaccine effort

Parizman advised marketers to be consistently thorough with the unbranded work handed off to medical and legal for approval, to gain those teams' goodwill over time.

“The more we can be good corporate stewards and follow the lines, and still push the edges when we can, the more our legal and medical teams are not going to give us that skeptical eye,” he said.

Shields pointed to AstraZeneca’s unbranded effort LVNG With (pronounced Living With), an online opportunity for lung cancer patients to share stories, advice and tips from their own journeys.

He advocated for measurement of results, noting that “in some ways it’s easier to do unbranded, but there’s a lot of noise too. … So it’s easier to get approved and done inside, yes, but once you put it out there, then what?”

Lenar noted the importance of including branded work in the marketing strategy when using unbranded.

“I think it’s very important and a topic of conversation when we talk to medical, legal and regulatory about what is the appropriate time to bridge the brand," she said. "Ultimately, we’re a pharma company and we sell branded products, that’s what we do. So we eventually have to get there.”