Marketing to Doctor Mannequin

In the abstract worldview of market research, physicians may be “professionals,” “providers,” “practitioners,” “specialists,” or “key opinion leaders”—but never, apparently, human beings. I don’t know any other explanation for the stilted, mechanical way we speak to doctors online, or in any other medium for that matter.  

The Nexium professional site (as of 11-15-12) is a typical example. Crowded bar graphs vie for attention with an equally crowded sidebar navigation that I defy anyone to view without wincing.

It’s a design style—a term I’ll use for the sake of argument—based on the false assumption that “objective” is synonymous with “ugly,” “dry,” and “unreadable.”

To be charitable, I suppose this graphic approach is an attempt to avoid even the appearance of manipulation. In light of the stricter standards imposed by the FDA in the last decade, I can see why a pharmaceutical company might want to avoid any design element that could possibly be construed as “seductive.” But that’s no excuse for producing a site that could possibly be construed as “hideous.”

You are, after all, marketing to human beings, not Walmart mannequins. So even if you believe the medical profession, as a culture, demands a strictly data-driven discussion of pharmaceuticals, there’s no reason to assume a typical doctor has no aesthetic sense and, by the way, prefers to squint at text rather than read it.

Compounding the negative impact of the Nexium visual style, the meaningless tagline “We earn our stripes” undermines the credibility of the site since, far from delivering value, it’s an empty claim based on the product’s pill design. Drivel like that teaches users to ignore copy and dismiss your message.

Yet, similarly unappealing and unmotivating Web pages addressed to healthcare professionals are common. The approach taken by Spiriva results in a format that, while more readable, is only marginally more interesting, starting with the gray-on-gray color scheme.

The infantile illustration of people enjoying “quality of life moments” from inside a Spiriva inhaler only makes matters worse, even if it is a slight improvement over the munchkin-sized folk dancers on view at the Bayetta professional site.

Sadly, unmitigated kitschiness appears to be the universal language of professional pharma Web design. I can only suppose that, since legal and medical restrictions prohibit snappy, pun-laden headlines, a majority of brand managers demand snappy visual puns to take their place.

Underlying this, of course, is the ad industry’s own unexamined equation of audience engagement with creaky humor, terminally cute graphics and groan-inducing wordplay.

Stenciled emotions, templated engagement.
Even in cases where a professional site achieves a reasonable standard of human appeal, an unwavering sameness prevails. Why, I have to ask, do we believe that doctors are motivated by photos of other doctors—and in lab coats, no less? Is there research to suggest that people with the mental acuity to graduate from medical school can’t identify a professional Web site unless it features a picture of a dude in a lab coat?

Or is it actually a lack of faith in the collective communication skills of the brand, the agency and the attendant army of consultants who attach themselves to every project? After oceans of time and expense, apparently, most pharmaceutical brands feel their message won’t be clear without a photo of a model in a white jacket.

To be fair, the photos show some degree of variation. There’s the doctor with the look of concern, the doctor with the visionary gaze and the doctor with the bemused smirk of self-confidence. That the vast majority of doctors depicted are men should surprise no one in a country that’s at least two generations away from electing a woman to its highest office.

Stone Age cultural attitudes aside, the obligatory doctor shot is one more instance of opportunity lost. Because, in case it hasn’t dawned on you, that white coat doesn’t qualify as news. Having brought your audience to your site through the magic of search, your next logical step is to tell them something they don’t already know.

That is, of course, if your focus is communication. If, however, the impetus that drives your every marketing and creative decision is fealty to ideological abstractions about engagement strategy and Web design, you’ll arrive at today’s status quo: A dreary lot of stiff and static Web pages more likely to result in a diagnosis of osteo arthritis than in a prescription for success.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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