DTC Advertising’s Dirty Little Secret: It Just Doesn’t Work Well Anymore

Dear House Rules,

I’m putting together a marketing strategy for a new pharma client with an older brand. How big a role should I allocate to DTC advertising? The consumer still rules, right?


Talk to Their Doctor

Dear New Rules to Rule,

For decades now, Direct-To-Consumer (DTC) advertising has been a fixture in our media landscape. It seems we can’t turn on the TV or radio or read a popular magazine without being bombarded by ads urging us to talk to our doctors about conditions we may not even have known existed.

And for decades, it worked like gangbusters. What brand has the purple pill? Don’t you want to be there to teach your grandchild to ride a bike? Plavix and Lipitor think so. And agencies have spent millions over the years on celebrity endorsements—Sally Field for Boniva, golfer Phil Mickelson for Enbrel, even Bob Dole for Viagra!

The problem? These ads simply don’t work well anymore.

Food and Drug Administration regulations on DTC ads have become more and more strict, and in any case, consumers often don’t have a lot of influence over what drugs they take anyway. Sometimes, they don’t even “talk to their doctor” in the first place.

Savvy marketers seek to influence customers where they actually are—not where they were 30 years ago. Here are a few examples of branding outlets you might want to add to your strategic mix:

  • Health Insurance Providers: In many cases, insurance providers, who determine whether or not a given drug is “approved” on their formulary, wield the real power. They can overrule a clinician’s recommendation with the click of a mouse. Pharma brands can reach these providers through targeted tactics that speak to their specific concerns, placed in journals or on websites where they’re likely to be.
  • Retail Pharmacists: Retail pharmacists have significant influence on the final decision regarding which Rx brand consumers will take home. Pharmacists are charged with balancing care and cost and will, 67% of the time, recommend an alternative brand to reduce patient out-of-pocket costs. And according to 1,000 consumers polled in a national survey conducted by Finn Futures Health, the majority will accept the pharmacists’ alternative medication suggestion. But if your client has reached these pharmacists, a change may be less likely.
  • Walk-In Clinics: It can take weeks to get in to see a physician, and today’s busy consumer often opts to visit a walk-in clinic (either freestanding or in a pharmacy) for minor complaints. Pharma brands need to be in those locations with tactics that reach both the providers and the patients.

To serve your clients in the best way possible, make sure you’re as nimble and flexible as the current healthcare environment itself. By finding new ways to reach these new decision-makers and -influencers, you can position yourself as a valued and valuable partner as the healthcare landscape continues to change. In order to achieve this, be sure to work with a creative agency that excels at strategic thinking as well.

About Xavier Creative House

Founded in 2013, Xavier Creative House (XCH) is an award-winning healthcare creative agency specializing in pharmaceutical, biotech, and medical device. XCH’s global team of brand builders and healthcare marketers, tech-savvy go-getters, and innovative dream-vetters are passionate about the big idea that changes behavior in the healthcare marketplace. They believe life is about connections and that healthcare is about life. That is why XCH delivers bold and evocative creative solutions, amplified by meaningful technology, to energize brands and authentically connect with patients and HCPs.

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For more information, contact

Sunny White
Founder & CEO of Xavier Creative House