Information Sharers or Storytellers?

Framing the conversation to uncover the deep functional & emotional customer experience of the brand is vital says David Coleiro.

For many of us who work in the pharma industry, engaging with both internal company and external customer stakeholders is critical to our role. The information we share with those groups is central to achieving that engagement. So as a case study, let’s look at how customer research projects are run. Here, where information sharing and storytelling are critical, we observe two trends that challenge whether we are really optimizing our success with the existing approach.

Market research budgets are in decline, as are physician response rates. We hear from our fieldwork partners that as few as 5-10% of those approached are willing to take part. Recruiting from an ever decreasing pool reduces our ability to gain real insight into our customer’s behaviors and decisions and, therefore, do our job to the best of our ability.

As an agency that strives to make the customer voice and experience central to strategic brand planning, these trends affect what we do, every day. So this says to us that neither our internal nor external customers are seeing value in the process and outcome and consequently are engaging, supporting and purchasing less of what we do.

To understand some of the causes of this image problem, we spoke to both key customer groups about their experiences of market research.

Healthcare professions feel overwhelmed and often dissatisfied

Healthcare professional respondents told us they often feel overwhelmed with information and forced to answer our questions in a very unrealistic timeframe, with little chance to reflect. The consequence of this is we get a very rational reaction because they don’t have time to connect emotionally to the information in front of them. As we know, experiencing brands in the real world provides a much richer context; if we only uncover half the story, then we only get half the truth of what may happen outside the research setting. Additionally, respondents may be walking away feeling dissatisfied with the process. In these instances, our respondents might think twice about coming back.

Brand teams need deep exploration of ‘the unknown’

Our brand team clients tell us that the voice of the customer needs to be at the very heart of their brand. They see the insights from market research as the foundation. After all, without deep insights, without knowing how our customers feel, there is no brand. As Christina Griffin, a dynamic Global Brand Director at AstraZeneca put it, “Give me the ‘thing’ I didn’t know. The answer for the brand that our customers may or may not be talking about but that’s there, between the lines, during the research. We need you to think like marketers, who listen to our customers and understand what that ‘thing’ for the brand might be”. Nicely put.  

If we want our research to uncover these opportunities, we need to find ways to engage our respondents as well as ensure our insights tell the full story.

The value of engaging information: a real life example

To build a brand, the conversation needs to be designed to reflect what our customers think, feel and do. If we take a well-used approach, the product profile for example, our hypothesis is that respondents, faced with a wall of endpoints, give a functional response.

This hypothesis was put to the test in 2015 when we were commissioned to work with Christina and her team on a brand development project in preparation for a Europe-wide launch.

The research element of the project consisted of two stages, both of which required us to present some product information. In research phase I, we shared a product profile (See Figure 1). As trained specialists, the respondents honed in on key efficacy and safety data points; these are clearly important but are purely the functional elements of the brand we were aiming to create. The rest of the information, which was added to provide context, was ignored. The result: what they saw was a ‘me too’ option that would only be considered after the current treatment of choice.

In the second phase, we presented the same information but as a story; a data pack (Figure 1), which permitted the respondent to focus and absorb each aspect of the brand in an ordered sequence. As a result, there was a major shift in their views. This time, they saw something different, innovative, a new way of treating their patients with the potential to replace the current treatment of choice. Same information, fundamental shift in views.

Would how we presented the product information impact the depth of understanding and perceptions of the brand? And would it shift views of the research experience itself?

As a team, we could have gone with the insight from the first phase. We would have been listening to customers’ views after all, but we might have built a soulless brand based on functional insights alone and, as a result, have missed the true potential for the treatment. Instead, we challenged ourselves on how we could explore customers’ views in more depth, building a brand with a bold and confident direction as a consequence.


Figure 1: Two methods of data presentation

Testing the hypothesis

This difference in views had been so significant, we wanted to validate the results and so commissioned our own research. Earlier this year, we conducted 30 telephone interviews; 15 respondents would see the original product profile and the other 15 would see the data pack.  We kept all other variables the same: how respondents were recruited and the questions we asked. Our aim was to test two things: would how we presented the product information impact the depth of understanding and perceptions of the brand? And would it shift views of the research experience itself?

First, we found respondents experienced the brand in a similar way as in the previous research with the project brand team, i.e. between the two formats, there was a far stronger response to the potential, and even personality, of the new launch brand.

Then, when asked to rate both the accessibility of the information and the overall research experience, the specialists we interviewed scored the data pack consistently and significantly higher. They found that the feed of data was much clearer, easier to understand and more engaging. For them, it was the better experience and, as Figure 2 shows, resulted in a 25% uplift across all the elements of understanding and experience we measured.


Figure 2: Customer perceptions of the information and experience

So, what has our research into the research conversation taught us?

  • The visual format of the data itself is important. We know from academic research that not only is it easier to understand, but graphical information increases comprehension, engages our imagination and heightens our creative thinking. By stimulating different areas of our brain, we are able to gain a fuller picture of their reactions.
  • As human beings, we are hardwired to engage with stories. If we want HCPs to engage fully, avoiding the rational, trained responses we saw with the product profile, then data should be presented in story form.
  • The data pack format is much more akin to how they see product information in real life in publications, detail aids etc. This helps to anchor them in the reality of the world they live and work in and how they make decisions.
  • We must help our respondents to get the most out of the interaction. This means re-thinking more than just the conversation, and truly presenting the whole approach as an experience, rather than a process.

Let’s return to each of the dual issues we introduced at the start of our article. Firstly, if respondents are more engaged and satisfied, we will not only get to a deeper level of understanding and insight into their decisions and behaviors, but they may also become more motivated to get involved. Secondly, we can’t directly control diminishing budgets but we can re-assert the value we bring to the brand teams we work with.

Framing the conversation to uncover the deep functional and emotional customer experience of the brand is vital if we want both customer groups to see the value we bring.

Christina Griffin is a Global Brand Director at AstraZeneca. David Coleiro is a Partner and Alison Abel is a Consultant at Strategic North, a healthcare brand building agency that works with clients in the pharmaceutical industry around the globe to build the successful brands of today and tomorrow, grounded in human insight and scientific understanding. They and their colleagues tweet @StrategicNorth and blog at

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