Are we harnessing the full emotional power of brand creativity?

Damien Parsonage|30th September 2016

Brands are powerful things. After all, we know that a brand name alone can impact the efficacy of medication. In their 1981 experiment, psychologists Branthwaite and Cooper concluded that branded aspirin tablets were “significantly more effective than unbranded tablets in relieving headaches” accounting for some “one-quarter to one-third” of the pain relief. Even branded placebos enjoyed this brand effect, and there was as much impact on non-brand users as those who chose a branded product regularly.

The power of brand is pervasive and persistent. Take Volvo, for example. What would you say Volvo’s brand position is? What does Volvo mean to you? If you said ‘safety’, you’re not alone. Everyone, everywhere says ‘safety’. Even though Volvo hasn’t even been in the top 10 list of the safest family cars for years.

Or what about Apple, officially the world’s most desirable brand? Branding is the reason Apple can charge three times as much for their technology as other, less desirable brands. It’s also why, in this social media age when any number of marketers will tell you that brands need to be open and generous to survive, Apple is able to do almost the exact opposite. A different, proprietary charger for every device? A music platform that makes it incredibly difficult for me to access and transfer tunes I already own? And yet still the people queue outside the store all night for the latest iPhone (and new charger).   

Irrationality rules 

It’s fundamentally irrational. And that’s the point. Brands create emotional bonds with consumers. It’s not about being rational and assessing your options with a cool head. It’s about the feeling you get when you encounter a brand: “The intangible sum of a product’s attributes”, as David Ogilvy described it.

That’s all very well, but what’s it got to do with pharma marketing? And specifically, prescription marketing to healthcare professionals (HCPs)? Aren’t we dealing with people who are rational and scientific?

No one is immune, however much they think they are  

It’s funny, but I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who doesn’t think they’re immune to advertising. And over the years, I’ve worked in numerous specialist sectors - IT, Telecoms, Financial Services, Insurance, and now Healthcare – where I have been told: “advertising doesn’t work on our target audience.” That’s always interesting, because those very same people (engineers, technicians, doctors), all drive fancy cars, wear expensive watches and have the latest smartphones. In the pharma sector specifically, we know branded medication continues to get prescribed even after loss of exclusivity. There’s no rational reason not to choose a generic every time, and yet physicians do.

The truth is, none of us is immune to advertising and the power of brand, however much we’d like to think we are. Even highly rational people in highly rational professions make emotional decisions. It’s how we work as humans.

In his 1994 book Descartes’ Error, Professor of Neuroscience at the University of Southern California, Antonio Damasio, argues that emotion plays a key role in all decisions we make. He found that people with damaged connections between the ‘thinking’ and the ‘emotional’ sides of the brain were simply unable to make decisions, essentially because they didn’t know how they felt about it. 

The illusion of rational choice

Since then, advances in neuroscience and our increasing understanding of how the brain works have continued to support Professor Damasio’s position. We now know that much of our decision making is made at an unconscious and emotional level. Mundane issues are tackled by the rational part of the brain (pre-frontal cortex), while more complex decisions are handled by the emotional part (midbrain dopamine system). In these instances, the rational part of the brain only leaps into action in a supporting role, looking for evidence to back up the emotion-based decision that’s already been made. We cannot control or override this activity – it all happens at subconscious level.

What it means, of course, is that we have the illusion of rational choice; the satisfying feeling that we’ve used reason to choose one thing over another, when in fact it seems we’re merely justifying our initial, emotional choice.

This post-rationalisation is something researchers see time and again in studies. For instance, Raj Raghunathan and Szi-Chi Huang conducted studies in 2010 at The University of Texas, which explored rational versus emotional decision making. They found the same familiar pattern: reason plays an important role, but only as justification after an emotional decision has been made. 

A tale of two chickens

In one test, subjects were shown two chickens. One was plump and healthy looking, which they were told was ‘natural’. The other was scrawny and feeble, which participants were told was ‘genetically modified’. Half were then told that the ‘natural’ bird was tasty but not very good health-wise. The ‘genetically-modified’ bird, they were told, was much better for their health, but a lot less tasty. The other half of participants was told the opposite.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, pretty much everyone chose the ‘natural’ chicken, whatever story they had been told – but they justified their decisions differently. Those who had been told that natural meant healthy said they’d chosen it because they valued health over taste. Those who were told that natural meant less healthy but tastier said they valued taste over health. Not one person mentioned the look of the birds or their genetic status as reasons for their choice.    

Interestingly, the researchers concluded that those who thought they were least likely to make emotional decisions were actually the most susceptible.  

Let’s get emotional    

What it all means, of course, is that we should be embracing brand in all our pharmaceutical communications. Because a well-crafted brand - and the creativity of its expression - are key ways of emotionally connecting with our audience. 

HCPs are highly unlikely to be a special breed of super humans able to separate their rational and emotional thinking. They’re just like the rest of us, open to emotion and the power of brand. So let’s not miss a trick when we’re trying to influence their behaviour. Don’t be constrained by the notion that only a fact-based argument will do. Don’t dismiss concepts as ‘too addy’ or water them down in the mistaken belief that advertising won’t work.

Demonstrable commercial impact

At the same time, let’s ensure we show clients the value of tapping into the emotional power of brand and creativity. Let’s demonstrate the difference it can make, how it can help convey our key differentiators in a more compelling way, in every communication, and contribute to the bottom line. I know from personal experience of A/B tests that a well-executed brand idea can dramatically impact the effectiveness of a communication – pulling seven times the response; increasing ROI by 1100%; improving NPS scores. Here at Blue Latitude Health, we’ve seen one concept-led EMEA brand campaign produce an unprecedented 81% take up in local markets.

Pharma clients are naturally, and understandably, risk averse. But that doesn’t mean ideas should be seen as inherently dangerous. A compelling concept is the perfect way to bring data to life and dramatise your product’s benefits. 


And let’s not forget, the products and services we promote save and transform lives. That’s as poignant as it gets. So why are we hampering ourselves by pretending emotion plays no significant part? 

HCPs deserve great advertising that touches them and reminds them that they do incredible things every day. After all, they’re human, too. Aren’t they?  

**This article originally appeared on PMLive and in PME.


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