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The Unwilling Customer.

October 27, 2009

Earlier this spring, I was invited to present at Digital Pharma 2009, a conference dedicated to the social media pursuits of pharmaceutical marketers and public relations professionals. I was asked to speak at the conference from the patient’s perspective on pharmaceutical marketing – and not as an actual marketer, which I also am, but for consumer lifestyle clients. This was before the Roche Diabetes Social Media Summit, so when I agreed, I didn’t have much of an idea of what actually went into talking about social media to Big Pharma. But let’s just say, it’s a whole lot harder than it looks.

My talk, which I gave last Tuesday afternoon, was one of the last in a series of conversations that took place with almost all pharmaceutical marketers. I was, in fact, the only patient in the room (well, the only Patient, as I’m sure many of the marketers have anxiously sat in a doctor’s office before). It was my job to represent all of Patienthood. No pressure, right?

I began my talk by talking about the diabetes blogosphere and why we’re here. Our goals for forming a community out of an otherwise isolating experience. I told them that if it wasn’t for the fact they knew I had diabetes, they probably wouldn’t actually know I had it. I have no visible signs of being sick, other than this little contraption on my pant pocket, which most of them probably thought was a MP3 player or cell phone (how on earth that could ever be confused with a iPod is beyond me, but that’s what I’ve been told….).

I also told them about the Roche Diabetes Social Media Summit. I told them that we appreciated the time that Roche took to get to know us and interact with us, reinforcing the conference’s overarching them at the SOCIAL MEDIA IS SCARY and that all we patients are going to do is talk about adverse events and get Big Pharma into a lot of trouble with the FDA (maybe we do talk about adverse events, but, uh, so what? That excuse was lost on me, I’m afraid).

I told them that we liked that they listened to us. That we were able to share our grievances and felt like maybe someone was going to do something about it, something that is infrequent in the world of healthcare. I shared feedback from some of the bloggers in the diablogosphere, like Kerri and LeeAnn. I included some shoutouts to TuDiabetes and Diabetes Daily because I think these communities are VITAL to the pharmaceutical companies and their employees understanding how their products affect our lives.

I gave them a few recommendations but the one I want to tell you, my readers, about is this: “Understand that the patient is an unwilling customer.

apple_macbook_s20001This is the one that got tweeted the most, and one that I really wanted to drive home. Throughout the entire conference, the pharmaceutical companies kept referring to patients as “customers.” As if I was buying a new Macbook or a VW Jetta. But this isn’t. Buying a new laptop or car might be considered a necessity to some, but it’s not something that keeps you ALIVE. Understand that patients do not WANT anything Big Pharma is selling. We’re not buying this because we want to. I choose Apple and Starbucks and Target because I want what they have. I don’t WANT Lifescan’s products, but I choose them because they are life-scan-one-touch-ultrasmartthe best alternative for my care.

I’ve always thought that we are often unwilling dropped in different buckets when it came to talking about healthcare. Today, Dana Lewis, while at ePatients2009 in Philadelphia, tweeted, “apparently we’re not people, we’re just patients. harumph. thus my insistence on “people with diabetes’. PERSON FIRST.” I thought this was especially fitting after my experience at Digital Pharma where patients were automatically consumers, which we are, but not in the typical way marketers think of consumers. Most consumers, at least in the lifestyle industry of technology and fashion, are choosing a product out of desire for the end result of what the product provides. There are only a few products people probably don’t ever want to purchase. Tax software, for instance. Or vacuums. Well, maybe there are people out there who LOVE their vacuums…

This got me thinking about all the different way in which other people will perceive someone with an illness based on their own station in life. Marketers think of us as consumers, even though we may not. Doctors will think of us simply as patients, those whom should respond in favor towards medical advice, even though we may not. Our friends and family may think of us as being “sick” or “weak,” even though we certain are not.

At the end of the conference, I was even more determined to show the Real Face of Patients. And do you know what that is? People. Patients are people. Yeah, I know, what a novel concept, right? But patients, the whole lot of us (and there are a lot of us) are almost treated as second-class citizens in this day and age, with the healthcare reform raging in Congress and Big Pharma trying to figure out what the hell to do with us here on the Internet. We’re causing chaos! Imagine that.

But patients are not rabble-rousers and they’re not tricksters. They are not trying to make anyone’s life miserable. Patients are your mom and your dad. They are your sister-in-law and your uncle. They are your next door neighbor and the girl across the street and your 10th grade history teacher. Everyone has been a patient at some point, and as this country’s health declines, more and more of us will know people with chronic or terminal illnesses. I now have had Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, type 2 diabetes, bladder cancer and two cases of breast cancer in my family. No one asked for these diseases. No one asked for their time and money to be spent on something this awful. We’re just trying to make this all just a little easier on ourselves.

I don’t WANT any of these products, my dear Big Pharma, but I NEED them. We need them. Don’t take that for granted and don’t assume any goodwill from us simply because you hold the key to keeping me from biting the dust tomorrow. Yes, we’re very skeptical as to why you need any more of our attention than you already have. But if you really want our attention, you better come up with something good.

  1. October 27, 2009 10:06 AM

    Well said. I hope they listen.

  2. October 27, 2009 10:08 AM

    I don’t have anything constructive to add, but I wanted to say that this was a solid read. Keep fighting the good fight. I’m glad people like you are on our side.

  3. October 27, 2009 10:11 AM

    Great post, Allison! I had to laugh at the part about there being people who love their vacuums. I know people like that. I also know, I’ll never be one, LOL! Anyway, I don’t have anything very constructive to add, so I’ll just say thanks for representing us 🙂

  4. tmana permalink
    October 27, 2009 11:09 AM

    Re: unwilling consumers… To some degree, it is the doctors and insurance companies — not us — who determine what we will buy (after all, they write the prescriptions and tell us what the co-pays are — and how many of us would willingly choose the $100 co-pay over the $5 co-pay?)… which is probably why Big Pharma goes after them with so much intensity.

    Most DTC pharma retailing for prescription items is in segments where treatment is arguably optional (arthritis, men’s performance, psychiatric drugs) or in segments where a doctor will not automatically ask if the patient is experiencing symptoms that might be mitigated by a prescription drug.

    The segments in which pharma can best interact with patients/people are those in which the end-user has some degree of choice (either because the product is OTC — like glucometers and strips — or because the prescriber is willing to discuss options with the patient).

    Still, I’d agree that in the diabetes market, the manufacturers that appear more “consumer friendly” are those that give us free access to detailed information to help us manage our conditions — e.g., the One Touch Gold program, BD’s wide range of consumer publications, Novo Nordisk’s various programs aimed at insulin users.

    • October 27, 2009 11:15 AM

      Tmana: I think you missed my point… I was not discussing our “choice” of This Product versus That Product. My point was that we never wanted to have to choose between This Product and That Product. I agree with your comments on companies that seem more consumer-friendly, but I think you may have missed my point about what an “unwilling consumer” is. The doctor/insurance may tell us what we have to buy, but we are still the purchasers and we still don’t *want* to make the purchase, unlike a car or computer where there’s a little bit of “fun” in it (even if it is high-cost).

  5. October 27, 2009 11:12 AM

    Just wanted to say that I agree *completely* with what you said. Thanks for representing us so well!

  6. October 27, 2009 11:48 AM

    That’s a really excellent point and one I’ve never really considered before. It’s definitely something to be considered from a marketing standpoint, because really, how do you market to an “unwilling customer”.

  7. October 27, 2009 12:33 PM

    I think your point is excellent, because often, pharma marketers treat their target market as if they were selling Palmolive dish detergent or Tide laundry detergent. It’s not that simple, and the tendency to overlook the lack of desire to buy their product is an important issue that too many marketers fail to give worthy consideration. Let’s hope they take the issue to heart!!

  8. October 27, 2009 5:32 PM

    Allison, I admire your approach to Big Pharma. You represented all people with diabetes very well and your points are valid for more that just PWD and CWD. Your point about being unwilling customers applies to medical problems in general and should be understood by the Pharmas.


  9. October 27, 2009 7:58 PM

    So very well said, Allison. I never thought of it that way, but certainly agree that we are unwilling consumers. I hope the people in the room listened to you, and reconsider their approach.

  10. October 27, 2009 10:18 PM


    I love your take on this and am so relieved that you feel this way. I left a similar comment this morning on after Amy posted about your Digital Pharma testimonials:

    “Pharmaceutical companies have their work cut out for them:

    They are not like other consumer product companies like Apple or Starbucks in that ultimately the physical products pharmaceutical companies make are much more important than how much love they have.

    Allison provided a perfect example of this: She “loves” Novo-Nordisk but sticks to Humalog anyway. In the other examples, if you LOVE Apple you’ll go out and buy Apple products instead of Dell or HP. If you LOVE Starbucks, you’ll choose Starbucks over the competitors 7 days a week.

    Does Novo Nordisk consider Allison’s love for them (as a diabetic, not an influential blogger), but her apparent refusal to switch to their products, a win for their company? The barrier of switching is as tiny as asking her endo for a different prescription, but in reality she probably just sees no reason to change to the Novo Nordisk product.

    Apple knows that if people love them as a company, that these consumers will buy and switch to their products NO MATTER WHAT; whether the products are overpriced or inferior in technical specifications or both. Is the same true for a pharmaceutical company’s products? If we use Allison as an example, no.

    Social media is still extremely important for pharmaceutical companies but I believe there are a different set of case studies that they should follow instead of Apple and Starbucks. Whereas people will sacrifice to buy products they love (for example spending more money on a Mac), diabetics, in general, will not sacrifice to buy from a company they love unless the benefits are VERY apparent.”

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