Going Beyond the Pill and Into the Story

August 12, 2020

Executive Summary

We live in a complex and rapidly changing time. There are countless priorities competing for our attention. Every day we navigate a proverbial avalanche of information, make sense of it, and devise a path forward. Every minute of every day over 4 million YouTube videos are watched, $1MM gets spent online, and over 180 million emails are sent. The numbers are awesome, even at such a small increment of time. Healthcare in the United States is a microcosm of our complex society—de-centralized structure, abundance of information, hard to fully understand when looking for quotidian solutions to common problems.

The pharmaceutical industry is not immune from this problem. Instead it has been actively developing and partnering with organizations on expanding wearables, digital pills, patient and healthcare professional tools, and in some cases holistic care platforms, all in the service of helping customers better navigate and treat diseases, beyond the sale and manufacturing of medications. Many in the industry refer to this as a ‘beyond the pill’ or ‘digital transformation’ — buzz terms that really mean addressing gaps in healthcare information and tools that allow customers to better manage any disease, usually through a technical and/or digital solution. Pharmaceutical companies have found there is a strategic competitive advantage to providing value and services — in addition to their core business of selling medications. Packaging a suite of solutions to a disease — a combination of therapies that may include advanced technologies that work in conjunction with a prescribed medicine. 

This trend has become particularly prominent in managing chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart failure. They are diseases that need active management and participation from the patient, caregiver, and healthcare professionals. Pharmaceutical companies have teamed with outside organizations and developed their own solutions to provide tools that allow customers to monitor diseases virtually and in real-time, ensuring patients have the information necessary to effectively manage their health. All healthcare consumers, at any stage of living with or helping to support a peer or loved one with a disease, need technologies that are easy to use and require little effort. In other words, novel digital solutions that extend a pharmaceutical company’s footprint with the customers they serve need to be seamless. The kind of solutions developed for chronic conditions are now being applied to other more acute disease areas.

The Future Will Be Experiential

What does it mean to be seamless?  The omnipresence of storytelling in all facets of business and life is an illuminating example. Stories are how culture gets transmitted. It is one important way we can understand complex feelings, emotions, and facts by identifying with characters and scenarios. To most people, the framework and rules of storytelling are not completely clear, but the way we experience story is based on a shared set of expectations of what constitutes a story. The most ubiquitous form of storytelling in our culture is audio-visual through television and movies. There is a language and structure that we have come to expect and rely upon that provides the necessary cues for us to make sense of those stories. The audience doesn’t have to know that the writer and director started by introducing descriptive information about a protagonist, then introduced an inciting incident to establish a journey, then expanded that conflict with further exposition, ultimately leading to a nadir, before ultimately coming to some kind of resolution. That structure is so engrained that it is not worth thinking about in any detail. That process is seamless for the viewer, at least when done well. The formula and the visual cues we are conditioned to recognize as important details allow us to make sense of the story and identify with it. The same kinds of processes are implicit in the world of business and commerce. We have positive experiences when we have complete stories.

Big Tech is a good example of how experience and a comprehensive business story informs their approach to new product lines and acquisitions. Any of the Big Four (Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google) could serve as a good proxy business case, but in the interest of brevity we will look at Amazon and just their e-commerce business. They started as a seller and marketplace for the buying and selling of books and over time expanded into an experience-oriented business selling nearly all kinds of consumer goods. If we look at the business through the lens of story, we see that they have all the components covered. They have user reviews that allow prospective customers to evaluate products based on peer input. It is the introductory phase of the story —learning about items of interest and inciting incident that may begin a path towards purchase. Alexa voice assistant helps customer keep lists and execute orders in real-time which are synched to user profiles and online engagement. It is the further exposition and integration into the story that turns a passive customer into an active one. Once an order is executed, a complex fulfillment apparatus that is a combination of owned capabilities and partnerships with third parties takes over. It provides real-time insight into the falling action and resolution of a transaction. And finally, all the data gathered from all those e-commerce business units is used to fuel advertising that is individualized to each customer. Ensuring customers are coming back for the next story and the story after that. The business started with just one component of a story structure covered and has since expanded to many more. It’s one of the key reasons it has continued to show substantial growth over the last twenty years.

The growth of ‘digital innovation’ and ‘beyond the pill’ thinking in the pharmaceutical industry is at its most basic level an attempt to fulfill a need in the customer’s story and have the kind of omnipresence illustrated in the above example. Five or ten years ago, a company may have been solely focused on selling a medication, which in story terms is just a resolution—just one part of a much larger customer story. By expanding to offer a suite of solutions that may include wearables, digital medicines, and digital care platforms, companies are now better positioned to communicate and engage customers in a complete story. They can offer a digital platform with concise disease information and tools, paired with a medication, or not, then also tie that platform to one or more wearable devices to consistently manage vital datasets. That is a complete story—from introduction to conclusion—all brought to the customer by one company or a company and integrated partners. It empowers patients, makes them active participants in their care, provides relevant information when needed, and can improve compliance. Any company thinking about the entire story surrounding a disease and actively planning to address it with relevant tools is sure to see positive returns on those investments.

Impact on Media

These companion solutions now starting to scale across disease areas and in the industry at large create many significant opportunities to refine and augment media strategies. First off there is the wealth of the data digital solutions hold the promise of producing. Those data can help a media team identify and develop messaging solutions that relate to where a customer is in their own journey at any given point in time and amplify owned digital solutions with advertising that provides needed prompts to condition effective behaviors. In addition, media itself can be a companion to pharma developed medication and digital tools—acting as paid eco-system of consistent support to consumers and HCPs that aligns to their unique situation. An extension of these innovations is the concept of personalized medicine. It is clear that personalized media will also be a critical component of ensuring the promises of these nascent innovations become the standard.

As a next step pharmaceutical companies and media teams should be evaluating experiential and marketing opportunities through the lens of story. How does a possible solution or opportunity fit into the large narrative a brand is having with a set of customers—consumers, healthcare professionals, caretakers, anyone? How can the solution refine that story and make the entire customer experience more seamless? In the most practical terms within the media landscape it means ensuring that the flow of customers in relation to an individual tactic is informing everything else.