Consumer Communication


Nalla Founder & CEO, Vicki Young, recently shared her thoughts with PMPS Magazine on using brand to convey the positives of using a medication and to help consumers differentiate between products on the market.

Consumer decisions are based on emotive instincts and benefit-driven needs, yet packaging aesthetics can be particularly hard to distinguish between, making it difficult for the patient to develop a preference.

When thinking about pharmaceutical packaging, boxes of pills with unpronounceable brand names that are sterile and prescriptive in appearance, with bulky pamphlets full of information on side effects and dosages fitted inside spring to mind. This is a particularly uninspiring image, and it makes it easy to understand why, from a patient or consumer point of view, there is very little to engage with. If a consumer is unable to differentiate between one medication and another, they would have no reason to base their decision on anything more than cost or habit. This article will explore the ways in which companies can stand out from competitors and looks to engage with patients on a level that will mean they automatically select one brand over another.

Consumers are benefit-driven. Whether the aim is attempting to achieve a particular look, experience, or state, patients inherently aspire to the benefits that a product or service can deliver. However, in the pharma sector, most brands still focus on communicating the features of a product, rather than the benefits. To clarify, features are what a product is made up of, while benefits are what the end user can expect to feel or experience from using a product. For many years, companies have been moving towards a more benefits-first approach. Increasingly, companies understand that consumers are not quite as rational and analytical in their preferences as previously thought.

For example, imagine when Apple launched their first generation iPod. Would this statement make a person rush out of the house to buy one:

“The iPod: A 5GB hard drive capable of holding 1,000 songs in 160Kbps MP3 format, a high-output amplifier (60mW), a FireWire port, and a standard 3.5mm headphone jack in an ultra-sleek ‘iBook white’ and stainless-steel case with a 2” white backlit LCD display. Battery life is an estimated 10 hours.”

Or would a person be more swayed into paying for:

“The iPod: 1,000 songs, in your pocket.”

Promoting the benefits of a product in the first instance is what taps into the unconscious and emotive mind, engaging imaginations which are triggered by cues promoting a sense of familiarity and have unconscious reactions to messages presented to consumers. For many, the iPod represented a sense of untethered freedom, which was incredibly powerful.

For many consumer audiences of the pharma industry, including both direct (patients) and indirect consumers (medical practitioners, carers, etc), being able to understand what the ultimate benefit of a medication is will be a key driver in whether they choose one medication over a competitor’s, albeit often an unconscious one.

When exploring how the unconscious mind can influence our decision-making, start by looking at how the brain handles this. Research shows that the limbic and neocortex areas of the brain are responsible for driving decision-making. These areas work together on making choices, yet both are quite different in how they operate. The neocortex compiles the frontal lobes of the brain that have developed to control an individual’s inherent animalist urges – in other words, this is the ‘rational’ side of the brain. The limbic area is the system found much deeper inside the brain and, having evolved a lot earlier than the neocortex, is responsible for human emotions. When people say they let their ‘heart rule their head’, what they really mean is they let their limbic system override their neocortex.

One could assume that decision-making is led by the neocortex, as individuals like to imagine that any decision involves a healthy dose of rational thinking and analysis. However, in reality, it is the limbic area that prevails. Consumers are influenced by emotional factors much more than they are aware, as these ultimately provide the basis for reason.

Eminent neuroscientist, Antonio Damasio, explored this theory extensively in his best-selling book, Descartes’ Error. He famously used the example of one of his patients, codenamed ‘Elliott’, a happily married man in his thirties who was very successful in his career. Elliott suffered from a brain tumour which damaged the part of his brain that connects the neocortex to the limbic system. Despite the fact he could ‘function normally’ upon recovery, Elliott was left devoid of emotion, able to only present rational reasoning. His ability to make ‘good’ decisions had all but disappeared. Although his IQ remained unchanged, Elliott went on to make ‘bad’ decision after ‘bad’ decision, which led to events such as the breakdown of his marriage, losing his job, and losing all of his money through a bad investment. Elliott’s lack of ‘emotional drive’ made him incapable of judging the value of one decision over another. He lacked any ‘gut feeling’.

In relation to the pharma industry, focussing on communicating the overall benefits of a medication, ie, ‘getting you back to normal’, could work better by engaging with patients’ limbic systems, and helping to drive their decision-making. This can be achieved by ensuring the emotive benefits of medication are communicated through the branding and design.

Of course, the pharma sector is unlike most other consumer markets. For one, considerably more legal red tape must be adhered to. However, this does not make it impossible to bring emotive features into a brand. All consumers have needs, wants, and desires and will analyse purchase decisions on what they trust will work best for them and their needs. A strong, reputable brand understands what the consumer wants and will hand it to them as a way of building trust. The most strategic way to market a brand successfully is by starting with a thorough brand strategy exercise, which involves conducting in-depth research with consumers to understand them and what they are looking for. The ability to translate this into what is really important to the consumer and playing it back to them is what will communicate to the limbic system, rather than the neocortex. That is not to say that the neocortex should be ignored entirely, rather that the right balance should be found. Rational thinking still plays a role in decision-making, however, it tends to operate as a secondary justification to the initial emotional instinct.

Brands that communicate to the neocortex first tend to lead with science-based communicative language such as ‘scientifically developed’ or ‘a powerful triple action formula’, whereas a limbic-first communications approach would perhaps read as: ‘everyone experiences pain differently. Knowing what type of pain you have can help you get back on your feet quickly’.

Ultimately, consumers are concerned with the results of a product and will often not require the scientific evidence-based rationale. However, to communicate the effectiveness of a product, it may sometimes be necessary to present scientific evidence of results. When this is the case, presenting the information in a way that supports and highlights the results is best, rather than overwhelming your audience with scientific language that they may not fully understand. Returning to the previously mentioned copy lines: ‘scientifically developed’ or ‘a powerful triple action formula’, this fails to explain the results and, ultimately, the benefits of the product. By simply rewording the language used to instead read as ‘developed with a powerful triple action formula that provides six hours of relief’, this focusses on the benefits and will ultimately have a greater positive impact upon the consumer.

Once the communication angle is understood, the next important factor is to ensure that the product appeals on a visual front too. In industry, lots of products look the same or similar. Many brands use a limited range of colours and even employ the use of similar style graphics. This makes it very difficult for the consumer to differentiate between

products, be they over the counter or prescription. If brands are not working hard to make their product distinctive to stand out to the consumer, how can they expect the patient to have product recall or preference?

A simple language style can be a strong driving factor in success, and this is particularly important when it comes to the brand name. Market analysis has determined that shares in companies with easy-to-pronounce names significantly outperform those that are harder to pronounce.

When considering pharma brands, companies can help to differentiate their product or service and create a greater engagement with their consumer audience in several ways. They should start by looking at whether they are focussing on the features or the benefits and ensure that their design supports their message in a visually compelling way. All pharma brands focussed on growth and success must look to promote the benefits of their product if they really want to win over hearts and minds.


This article is taken from Pharmaceutical Manufacturing and Packing Sourcer November 2018, pages 30-33. © Samedan Ltd