Sales & Multichannel Canada

Jun 17, 2015 - Jun 18, 2015, Toronto

Think multichannel: Be a part of Canada's new business model for pharma marketing

A Good Story Can Keep an Organization Afloat

Everyone likes a good story, but do they really have a place within pharma? We spoke to Ian Sanders, Creative Consultant and Business Storyteller, to find out.

Storytelling as a content marketing strategy certainly made its mark in 2014 as the pharma industry recognized the need for simpler, more interesting ways of engaging with customers. This trend is set to continue, with Blue Latitude, the strategic marketing consultancy, ranking storytelling as one of the top seven predicted trends in pharma marketing for 2015. We explore why storytelling can be such a powerful marketing tool for gaining the attention of key stakeholders within healthcare.

Standing out from the crowd

Today, many businesses work in ‘abundant marketplaces’ where they face competition from similar-sounding, similar-positioned businesses. The same can be said of the pharmaceutical industry, where various pharma organizations look the same and seem to offer the same. Many also get tarred with the same brush when it comes to reputation or as being seen as part of the problem rather than the solution.

When we think of pharma, we often think of big faceless corporations. You can use the power of the story to tell a human story - about the people behind a product or innovation and the teams who are trying to change the industry.”

In such a competing marketplace, how can individual organizations stand out from the crowd? For Ian Sanders, business storytelling is the answer. He says, “Business storytelling is the opportunity for an organization to tell their side of the story, and to do that direct-to-audience, instead of relying on outsiders -journalists and commentators - to get the message out.”

“This is what’s known as ‘disintermediation’ - cutting out the middleman to tell the story directly, ‘creating and using your own content to build a voice.’ It requires organizations to relinquish ownership of their content and to share it in the public domain,” Sanders explains. This has particular appeal within the pharma industry, which can often be painted as the ‘bad guy’ within the media.

So, how might pharma be able to leverage stories to improve their reputation? According to Sanders, “A story can’t be used to gloss over a bad reputation or make a bad reputation good, but it can be used to tell your side of the story. The starting point for that should be to tell the human story. When we think of pharma, we often think of big faceless corporations. You can use the power of the story to tell a human story - about the people behind a product or innovation and the teams who are trying to change the industry.”

Telling a good story

The next important question is, what are the important components of a business story? Sanders says, “For many businesses, competing on your product benefits isn’t enough. Businesses need to look under the bonnet and leverage their thought leadership, their values, and also their story.”

Sanders believes that thought leadership and storytelling are closely related. Specifically, thought leadership gives an organization the opportunity to compete on a different front to their product features and benefits. Communicating thought leadership can give substance to a story. “You don’t necessarily need the biggest market share to get the biggest mindshare,” says Sanders.

The great thing about a story is that it is more memorable than a spreadsheet, dataset, or annual report. A good story can make complex information simple and understandable. However, any good story needs the following components, according to Sanders:

  • It needs to be transformative, demonstrating how a problem was solved or an obstacle overcome
  • It needs to emotionally engage with the audience; the audience needs to care about the story
  • It needs to motivate the audience to take action, to share the story, to follow up and to find out more 

It is these factors that can be leveraged as differentiators in order to help organizations get noticed. The challenge can be in extracting, capturing and communicating these often hidden assets.

“Remember that a good story isn’t just a marketing tool,” advises Sanders, “It can be used as a leadership tool and it can have the power to change an organization.” Sanders provides an example of an organization he knows that grew rapidly from having a single entrepreneurial founder with a handful of staff and a single product, to a multiple management team and a portfolio of products and services. When the organization was small, everyone had a clear idea of what the business stood for - telling the story was simply a case of retelling what they’d heard at the job interview and company meetings. Everyone understood the business - staff knew why they were passionate about working there and clients saw the story as a point of difference. The story worked.

However, then something changed within the organization - staff numbers grew, new managers were hired, new departments started up. “But the management team forgot to change the story,” explains Sanders. “Executives would go out and pitch the business, but tell the ‘old’ story. It didn’t fit. The organization lost its magic touch because the story was neglected.”

It’s about more than marketing

Shaping and telling a business story is more than just marketing. It’s a touchstone for what the business stands for and a tool to get a team motivated by a better understanding of the direction they are going in. “In my business, I help clients tell their story - communicating it is often the easier bit; crafting it can be more complicated,” says Sanders. “But once you nail it, a story can reinvigorate an organization with focus and clarity, engaging staff and clients alike.”

The digital landscape means that every business, whatever its size, has the opportunity to ‘tell its story’ direct to its audiences, without relying on a middleman. A business can use its website, blog, social media channels, and other digital content to tell stories. Novo Nordisk are particularly skilled at utiliz\ing social media for storytelling and to help them stand out from the crowd. They encourage patients to share their stories on their Changing Diabetes website and also have a Novo Nordisk Channel on YouTube – a platform for telling a wide range of stories about themselves, patients, and how Novo Nordisk has helped real people.

Note the term ‘real.’ Business storytelling isn’t about presenting a fairytale, but more so about being authentic with your audience. Using real people and real scenarios can make content relevant, personalized, and interesting. Business stories create an experience, not just an overload of information.

Storytelling in pharma

All this sounds useful, but does storytelling really fit into the world of pharma? Sanders believes storytelling is relevant in every industry. He says, “Within pharma, it’s about leveraging the stories behind a business, the stories and thinking behind an innovation, to engage with the audience.”

Storytelling is a ‘pull’ marketing technique, used to engage people and stimulate a two-way exchange. It can be likened to a good film or book, where you are pulled into the plot. This technique is in stark contrast to the traditional ‘push’ tactic of providing research findings, statistics and facts to the audience – possibly overwhelming rather than encouraging engagement.

David Ormesher, CEO of closerlook, inc., a digital marketing firm for the pharmaceutical industry, has highlighted the importance of building emotional rapport with consumers. This is exactly what storytelling does because it appeals at an emotional level, not just an intellectual level.

In many ways, business storytelling is about a different, more authentic way of communication. Sanders says, “When I work with clients, the results can be game-changing. I help clients extract, capture and communicate their knowledge and insights so they can better communicate their strengths to the market.”

Sanders provides the following advice to the pharma industry in terms of business storytelling: “Look at your products and services from your audience point-of-view - whether they’re clients, partners, or the industry at large. What can you tell your audience to make them care more - to engage them - about your product or service? Apart from price, quality and performance, what else can you compete on?”


Despite the value of storytelling, it remains a largely untapped marketing strategy within the pharma industry. While research and facts are clearly important within pharma, it is a compelling story that will inspire, influence, and ultimately put pharma on the side of patients and healthcare providers. “Don’t dismiss storytelling as a marketing activity,” says Sanders, “Your story can act as your organization’s lifebelt - when conditions gets rough, grab hold of it to stay afloat.”

Ian Sanders helps organizations (from startups to big businesses) nail who they are, what they do and why clients should work with them. For more details, see or email


Sales & Multichannel Canada

Jun 17, 2015 - Jun 18, 2015, Toronto

Think multichannel: Be a part of Canada's new business model for pharma marketing