Health lab – bringing innovation to our digital communications – part 1

Leigh Householder

GSW Worldwide

In part one of this two-part article, Leigh Householder identifies how healthcare marketers can learn from the innovative approaches used in the lab.

Earlier this year, I overheard two pharmaceutical executives talking about the personal impact of our industry’s faltering reputation. One asked: “When someone at a cocktail party asks what you do for a living, what do you say?” “Health and wellness,” the other replied, “Sometimes medicine or CPG, never pharma.

We wear a big black hat as an industry. The Harris Poll confirms it year after year. They’ve been measuring how the public perceives 22 of the nation’s largest industries since 1997. In that time, pharmaceutical companies have had the second biggest decline in reputation (right behind oil companies), a 43-point slump in the number of people who say we’re doing a good job for consumers.

It’s no wonder. The only interaction most people have with pharma is a long wait in a customer service line, a discordant primetime television spot overrun with scary-sounding side effects, or a peek at a sales rep trying to get back to the sample closet (while they wait for a very late doctor).

That’s a broken interface.

It might lead you to think we work in some kind of backward, trailing industry.

But nothing could be further from the truth. Pharma is the source of a seemingly endless flow of life and world-changing innovation. From using gaming to model better cancer diagnoses to crowdsourcing the largest data set of medical information in the world to teaching a glucose monitor to plug into a Nintendo®, our industry runs on innovation. It’s how we’ve extended lives, changed the odds, and helped people become powerful advocates for their own health.

The problem isn’t the industry. The problem is the interface.

The way we introduce life-changing science to people is at best an afterthought and at worst a barrier. It’s clunky and covered with fine print and written in a voice that sounds about as human as the smarty-pants tones of R2D2’s golden buddy C-3PO.

We can change all that. We can do it by borrowing some lessons from the lab and learning core principles that have fueled the innovation engine for pharma for decades.


“Pharma is the source of a seemingly endless flow of life and world-changing innovation.”


Here are my top four:

#1 Forget normal.

We live in a culture of many cultures. Each with perceptions and expectations informed by its own experiences. Endless media choices, deep social networks, and virtually limitless options in music, food, and entertainment have allowed those experiences to diverge so dramatically that today what’s uber-popular in one group is likely to go virtually unnoticed by others.

Yet, as digital marketers, we’re still looking for a normal customer, an average user-type or a median demographic. We want to simplify things down to something everyone will like and know how to use. What we end up creating is a bland amalgam that few like and none love.

We miss the chance to connect with people around shared meaning or interests or context. To do that, we’d have to walk away from the middle and absolutely delight a niche.

How the lab has tackled it: The lab figured out that we’d worn out normal long ago. They dug into the human genome to find out how we’re different and what those differences could mean for rare diseases or small niches. They evolved personalized medicine to create treatments as a unique as the individuals they treat.

What marketing could borrow: The shift we need to create in the marketing suite is moving from looking for normal to identifying significant. We need to look for segments of people we can serve in some unique way or connect with in a moment of “they really get me” relevance.

Think Bayer’s DidgetTM glucose monitor developed just for kids, the Colonoscopy for Dummies book designed to answer the kind of worrywart questions that Google couldn’t, or the 60 Minutes-style videos Pfizer created to take on counterfeit drug production. Those tactics weren’t for everyone, which is exactly why they worked.


“The way we introduce life-changing science to people is at best an afterthought and at worst a barrier.”


#2 Be solution seekers.

At some point, problems – even marketing problems – get too complex to be solved by any one team. The new opportunity will be to know how to find the people and ideas that can.

A great example comes from the bottom of the ocean floor, of all places. Twenty years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, there was still a lot of oil down there. Exxon wanted to clean up the spill, it just didn’t know how. The oil had frozen with the sand and water to create an immovable shelf.

After decades of working on the problem, Exxon decided to look outside its walls for help.

They used a social platform to put out an open call for solutions. Within 24 hours, an Illinois chemist from the concrete industry saw the problem and realized he knew the answer. He sketched out the answer on a half sheet of paper (and, oh, would the story be better if it were the back of a napkin, but, still…) and faxed it in. The next day, the Exxon engineers called that chemist. They talked about the model, the equipment, and in the end, the solution to restoring the ocean floor.

The lesson is as true for marketing as it is for engineering: people will solve their own problems. Our role is to find and elevate those solutions.

How the lab has tackled it: Science is at once a collaborative and competitive world. From micro IP to development congresses to public challenges, the lab has long leveraged the crowd to both uncover and improve ideas. But perhaps the best example is Biogen Idec’s bi3 lab.

It started with a simple observation: inventors around the world were coming up with good ideas all the time. But many faced a momentum gap: they lacked the resources and funding to move from idea to prototype.


“People will solve their own problems. Our role is to find and elevate those solutions.”


bi3 was designed to be a true incubator with the energy of a startup and the resources of an innovation leader. It helps good ideas get to next.

What marketing could borrow: Social media listening and digital research have given us the ability to uncover solutions people are building for themselves whether those are big (new platforms or apps) or small (analogies to help explain or stories to support a solution).

Finding these ideas in their infancy and partnering with their founders lets pharma bring meaningful marketing to people. It lets our customers use marketing instead of being bombarded with it.

Imagine uncovering the next PatientsLikeMe, a site that is now home to the largest number of crowd-sourced health studies in the world but was initially conceived by two brothers – James Heywood and Benjamin Heywood – after watching their brother Benjamin’s long battle with ALS. They were frustrated that the doctors they saw had so few ALS patients and so narrow a perspective. They hoped that if they could bring enough people together, each entering their own specific medical experience, they could not only help these people with relatively rare life-changing conditions support one another but also help them act as their own advocates in their treatment and their lives.

View part 2 of this article here.




About the author:

Leigh is a digital strategist at GSW Worldwide and managing director of iQ, the agency’s innovation lab dedicated to how technology advances can benefit the future of healthcare marketing.

She has worked at a number of leading advertising agencies in Chicago and Columbus, including Sard Verbinnen, Albert Frank, Eyewonder and national branding firm, Ologie. She’s delivered meaningful brands and successful campaigns for a range of clients from well-known financial brands (PNC, Nationwide) to category-leading retailers (Bed Bath &amp, Beyond, Big Lots) to national associations (American Medical Association, American Lung Association) to universities (The Ohio State University, Hartwick College).

In 2011, Leigh was named a Rising Star by the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association (HBA) for her overt passion, industry thought leadership and significant contributions in new business, strategy and mentoring. Deep in the art of digital community construction and stewardship, she has spoken about trends and social media at national and regional conference for PRSA, AMA, ACUHO-I, American Society of Association Executives, Digital Pharma, Ohio Grantmakers Forum, and others. She contributes to many publications, including MedAdNews, PharmaVoice, PM360, Financial Times, Marketing Vox, DMI Review, The Social Path, AdWeek, and Business First.

What can pharma marketers learn from the lab?