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Consumer & Healthcare: The shift in healthcare communications

Introduction In this whitepaper, MSLGROUP in the Netherlands focuses on the great challenge pharmaceutical companies will face in the coming years: attracting the attention and meeting the needs of the consumer on a new level. Needs which are heavily influenced by mass communications becoming personal and moving to mobile channels. Purchase decisions are made 24/7 and increasingly driven by social media. In this process visual content and content marketing are becoming dominant. This development goes hand in hand with the Dutch government policy where people should take more responsibility for their own well-being. This results in more prescription medicines becoming available as OTC, a trend that has already been established in other Western countries. All over the world consumers need the right information more than ever. Drugstores, pharmacies and pharmaceutical companies can play a vital role in providing them with this information. Alex de Vries Bart van Wanrooij Renske van de Straat

Content 05 Change in consumer communications 06 Technology-fueled shift in consumer PR 08 Change in the pharmaceutical world 09 Patient-central thinking 10 Change is coming 11 Regulatory status 2013-2014


Change in Consumer Communications Shift from offline to online With the rise of internet in the last decade, consumers are now online nearly 24/7. They are continuously exposed to messages during the day (and night). Those messages used to come in through newspapers, radio, TV, advertisements in magazines and on billboards. Now all websites show advertisements and communications are usually a mix of on- and offline. A print advertisement or TV host can refer to a website or social media channel. Through technological improvements such as faster internet, better network service, etc., everyone is online. It’s important to keep in mind that your brand is influenced from many directions and you’re exposed to your stakeholders at all times.

Communication has gone from public relations to people’s relations, focusing more on authenticity, a personal and genuine approach of the consumer.

…to social media With the increase in popularity and availability of social media such as Facebook, Twitter and more recently Instagram, Pinterest, Vine, Google+, consumers are interacting. All the time. Not just from their desktops at home or at work, mobile technology has made it possible to be online on the go too. This development is explained into further detail in the next chapters.

Conclusion Mass communications are becoming personal and moving to mobile channels.

…to conversations/engagement The conversation with consumers is now on 24/7. Communicating as a brand or company is no longer a one way street: consumers can be expected to respond to your messaging, either directly or through their own blogs/pages on social media. Communicating with your consumers has become a conversation.

The way of ‘conversing’ with your consumers has also changed: a personal approach is greatly valued by your consumer.



Technology-fueled shift in consumer PR Mobile: Consumer on the go With the rise of smartphones and tablets, consumers are now accessible and within reach 24 hours a day. They are no longer bound to their home computers, print media or radio and/or TV when looking for information. By late 2013, 67% of Dutch people owned a smartphone. Only 65% own a pc/desktop: the smartphone has literally taken over.

Social media in the Netherlands Facebook remains a consistent presence in the Netherlands: by late 2013, 72% of the Dutch population had a Facebook account which on average was visited 24 times a week. The total amount of active Twitter users is declining, mainly caused by teenagers who were heavy users but are now moving on to Instagram and Snapchat to connect with their friends.

2014: The year of visual content and content marketing With the rise of image-oriented social media, visual content has become more important than ever. Most social media only show one or two lines of text before cutting off the message. An image or video will therefore attract more attention and ultimately engagement.

Shift in popular social media platforms Social networks Facebook (for private use) and LinkedIn (for professional use) have been around for quite a while. The same applies to blogs and social medium Twitter, a microblog allowing you to share content in 140 characters or less. New to the social media scene are so-called ‘visual’ media such as Pinterest, Instagram and Vine. These media offer a chance to share and engage through videos and images.

Mobile purchase decisions When consumers are in a store, they can look up any product online before deciding to purchase. What have others said about the product, is there a cheaper alternative or good deal available elsewhere? Purchases are also considered 24/7: on the train to work, while making dinner, when exposed to an email or social media post, during a night out with friends or picking up children from school.



“People should take responsibility for their own well-being or health. Only when it’s not possible to resolve health issues yourself, professional care and support come in place.” EDITH SCHIPPERS Dutch Minister of Health Care, July 2013



Change in the pharmaceutical world More medicines becoming available OTC More and more prescription medicines are excluded from health insurance packages. This forces the consumer to increasingly turn to OTC as a treatment. Simultaneously, the Dutch government pushes for more medicines becoming available as OTC and the associations for General Practitioners create guidelines where OTC products form the first-line treatment.

..Which creates a different role for pharmaceuticals More availability of OTC medicines calls for a different and more open way of communicating with consumers, as for example suddenly other regulations apply. Consumers also need to be more informed about these newly available medicines.

Increasing competition in OTC With the shift from prescription to OTC, the amount of available first-line treatments for a single disease will increase. For pharmaceutical companies the need for brand awareness and preference amongst target audiences will become increasingly important.

OTC as first-line treatment and the communication gap More medicines becoming available as OTC also means that providing consumers with the right information in an easily accessible way gains importance. Currently, drugstores are failing to inform the consumer appropriately, as it is not their core business and providing the right amount of

information with other customers lining up to pay for their products can be challenging. Not being trained for the purpose is one thing, but the main issue is that providing information just does not meet the business model of a drugstore. Consumers search online for credible information before, during and after they purchase their products. In the Netherlands, a quality label was launched as a collective drugstore initiative. This label promises the participating stores are ‘specialists in OTC’ and they will provide their customers with accurate information about the medicines they purchase.

The call for transparency because of questionable marketing activities by pharmaceutical companies grows.

Pressure on marketing activities Several companies have been fined over the last years for influencing health care professionals with indirect financial support. More strict regulation is expected and the role of the marketing officer is about to change. GSK has taken a lead with plans to cancel targets for marketing staff. Marketing officers need to find ways to create a new added value. Is the industry ready for these changes and how will these changes happen? Executive sponsors are crucial in the next steps.



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Patient-central thinking During the orientation, purchasing and evaluating process, the consumer faces different needs. Needs that can be met by external sources, such as peers, authorities and manufacturers. This is where the possibilities and challenges lie for pharmaceutical companies: they can provide platforms where peers can meet, where authorities get a voice and where reliable information is easily accessible. Consider educational content about certain diseases which raises awareness; knowledge about those diseases and available treatments, consumer experiences and satisfaction with the treatment. All consumer needs.




Currently, available information is fragmented and pharmaceutical companies are not actively providing consumers with this information in the way the consumers would like to receive it. This content should not be marketing-driven, but the consumer/patient needs need to play a central role. They need to be provided with useful information based on insights about these target audiences.



Change is coming 5 shifts to keep in mind 1. Increase of online engagement, also for OTC

The increase of online consumer engagement is apparent. Currently, up to 69% of Dutch citizens are using social media. Facebook is still the No. 1 platform. Consumers state that the impact of a message depends on the sender and their expertise. For OTC-experiences consumers look for each other via various platforms about specific diseases.

2. Visibility of online brand preference needed

To tap into the consumer life cycle in an early stage (awareness, knowledge) pharmaceutical companies must provide their product information through social channels if they want their brand to be visible in an early stage of purchasing. Every step of the way the consumer has different needs and will search online and listen to peers and authorities online. Pharmaceuticals should not only share information, but also facilitate these conversations.

3. Looking for authenticity; consumers value information themselves

4. Marketing becomes personal, bite-sized, searchable and shareable

To reach the right consumer, new technologies provide plenty of opportunities to make your knowledge, brand or product visible with the right person. Big data provides a more precise segmentation of age, location, interest etc. and therefore more relevant information for the consumer. Consumers love getting the right information in small ‘snackable’ portions, and will share this with their relevant networks more easily.

5. On- and offline becomes more integrated

That online activities not only take place in the living room anymore is no news. However, the realization that your phone is your most trusted channel when you are in a drugstore searching for the right product is not yet integrated into consumer communications. Even in this stage communication with consumers continues as they look up product rankings or find in-store communications that link to online information. Consumers make their final decision when they are not yet your brand ambassador.

Consumers today are critical of the information provided. They look at who the sender is and if they are (considered) an expert. They will share the most useful information with their network. If information is not reliable or has too much of a perceived sales purpose they will not share and might even comment negatively on it. You have to be able to live up to what you promise.



Regulatory status 2013-2014 Adverse events & Challenges

Social media

Laws define that adverse events should be reported within 24 hours after the mention. The reporting of adverse events needs to be done internally. This process may seem intimidating, but research shows the actual amount of adverse events that meet the requirements to be reported is very low. Should you have to report an adverse event: it can be done efficiently with use of special software. We have noticed more opportunities by being close to the consumer conversations about products then threats. The insights gathered from monitoring can be very valuable in future strategies.

KOAG/KAG has given out a guideline for social media use for pharmaceutical advertising purposes in 2011. The bottom line of this is “what applies to offline communications also applies to online communications”. Social media for pharmaceutical advertising in the Netherlands currently form a ‘gray area’, which is very important to take into account when setting up campaigns.

What are boundaries and difficulties KOAG/KAG checks communications to be compliant with the law. It’s recommended to involve KOAG/KAG early on in the creative process as their internal process tends to take relatively long.

Who influences what Two self-regulated non-governmental bodies monitor pharmaceutical promotion and advertising: ‘Foundation Code Pharmaceutical Advertising’ (CGR) for communications aimed at HCPs and ‘Examination board KOAG/KAG’ for public advertising for all OTC products. Both bodies educate and share knowledge, create norms, maintain and monitor these. They work closely together with each other but also with the Healthcare Inspection (IGZ).

CGR and KOAG/KAG only advise on matters, IGZ is legally authorized to give out fines to cases that do not comply with the law. This usually happens after CGR or KOAG/KAG raises the issue.

How do we navigate? It’s recommendable to involve KOAG/KAG in the (creative) process very early on. This provides you with an option to alter your campaign to meet requirements without severe consequences for your planning and budget. This will also prevent loss of valuable time further on in the process.




Connect with us







Alex de Vries, Head of Healthcare communications MSLGROUP in the Netherlands

Danzigerkade 23b 1013 AP Amsterdam +31 (0)20 30 55 900


Consumer & Healthcare: The shift in healthcare communications  
Consumer & Healthcare: The shift in healthcare communications