Healthcare: The over-the-counter challenge

The lines between ethical and consumer healthcare are blurring further, prompting the UK's top healthcare agencies to act accordingly, finds Gemma O'Reilly.

Few could have missed the headlines last year trumpeting the launch of the UK's first over-the-counter (OTC) diet drug.

Orlistat, which is manufactured by GlaxoSmithKline as Alli, has been available on prescription since 1999. Last spring, the drug became available to overweight people in pharmacies across the UK.

The switch of prescription drugs to OTC status is becoming more common and is an area in which healthcare PR agencies that have traditionally dealt with prescription-only medicines (POM) have been looking to capitalise.

Pharmaceutical communications shop Just Health PR is one of a number of agencies that have been looking to bolster their consumer offering, in order to attract drug companies searching for agencies with a more consumer-led approach.

'With more companies looking at POM-to-pharmacy switch opportunities, there is a growing demand for a more rigorous communications approach that focuses on building strong brand credibility,' says Just Health senior consultant Katy Sparks. 'Data communications and expert endorsements are now common requirements for communications supporting consumer brands and this expertise comes as second nature for pharma PR agencies.'

Increasingly, consumer products such as smoothies or anti-wrinkle creams are also looking to science to help bolster their credentials and influence consumers when they are making their buying decisions.

'Food manufacturers that make health claims are being vigorous in providing proper data to support these claims,'

says Red Door Communications CEO Catherine Warne. 'They are working closely with healthcare professionals on providing robust evidence. We have found with our consumer health client base that a scientific approach to communications has been attractive to clients.'

The trend of consumer products turning to science has led to other agencies, including Chandler Chicco Companies, looking to bolster their consumer services. The agency launched a consumer healthcare shop, Allidura, last summer.

Meanwhile, Virgo Health PR hired veteran consumer communicator Rebecca Rhodes to ramp up its existing healthcare offering, and Tonic Life Communications recruited consumer expert Jane Seaton to provide more senior advice for existing consumer clients.

'Consumer clients are looking for experience in understanding and translating scientific information, and being able to leverage data appropriately,' says Tonic Life CEO Scott Clark. 'Companies such as Nestle, in the nutrition space, are embracing science in all aspects of business, as it turns the company from the world's largest food producer into a "nutrition, health and wellness" leader.'

At the same time, consumer healthcare agencies are looking to the pharmaceutical arena to expand their client bases. Consumer shop Pegasus has been gradually recruiting more pharma specialists to attract prescription-only accounts.


What has it done?

European healthcare communications group Chandler Chicco Companies decided to launch a consumer arm last year, called Allidura.

It was launched to sit alongside CCC's other offerings, including its ethical PR shop Chandler Chicco Agency, market access division Brandtectonics and biopharma consultancy BioSector2.

The rationale

Allidura MD Vicky Hunt says the agency was formed in response to consumers taking more responsibility for their own welfare and becoming interested in the health benefits of products.

This led to more interest from clients looking for an agency that could communicate the science behind their brands.

'In recent times, governments, healthcare professionals and marketers have all realised that people are more interested in their health than ever before,' says Hunt. 'Whether they want to know more about illnesses and the treatment options available, or simply understand more about healthy eating and personal care, consumers are at the centre of a self-care revolution.'

The approach

A number of CCA team members who already had considerable experience within consumer health were moved across to set up the new agency last year. New staff members have also since been recruited. The agency now has 34 members of staff, nine of whom are based in the UK.

Has it worked?

Since launch, Allidura's evidence-based philosophy has attracted the attention of big brands. Key clients include Danone, Johnson & Johnson and Innocent Drinks.

For Innocent, the Allidura team has been charged with engaging nutritionists, dieticians and fitness instructors in a dialogue intended to help them understand more about the brand in the context of the Government's 5 A DAY campaign.

'For 2010, we are focusing on building on the work we are doing with existing clients, and attracting new ones that could benefit from our distinctive approach,' says Hunt.

'We also want to build a standalone reputation for enabling consumer brands to convey health benefits and healthcare businesses to build enduring relationships with consumers.'


What has it done?

Virgo has set about bolstering its existing consumer offering with key appointments in the team, including a creative director role to improve its consumer services.

The rationale

Virgo joint CEO Angie Wiles says the appointments are a result of growth in the consumer healthcare side of the business and a belief that consumer will continue to expand in 2010.

Consumer director Sian Boisseau adds: 'Virgo has worked in consumer health since our launch in 2003 and it is certainly a worthwhile and fruitful area of the business. Consumer products, such as nutritional supplements and dairy spreads and drinks, have all been adopting health claims.'

She also points to the increased number of POM-to-pharmacy switches as another growth area.

'This is a scenario Virgo has worked in extensively, and that is likely to continue owing to the drive towards self-care and the increasing role of pharmacists,' adds Boisseau. 'There is certainly a client demand for consumer health PR that can range from pure women's magazine media relations to advocacy programmes.

'Clients also want to create favourable environments for product launches with international campaigns and toolkits that allow smaller markets to conduct PR in a manner consistent with the global strategy and in an economical fashion.'

Virgo's approach

Former Cohn & Wolfe consumer director Rebecca Rhodes was hired last November in the newly created role of creative director to improve the agency's consumer offering. She has the specific brief of building Virgo's health and wellbeing client base and targeting consumer products that show a health benefit. The agency has been hiring other staff with consumer backgrounds to help with existing clients.

Has it worked?

The agency has a number of consumer clients and is currently working on the launch of Flomax Relief, a treatment for the lower urinary tract symptoms of a common condition called benign prostatic hyperplasia. It is the first POM-to-pharmacy switch in men's health and is an exciting project for the team.

Last year also saw Virgo support the highly publicised switch of GSK's controversial weight-loss drug Alli.


What has it done?

Brighton-based PR shop Pegasus has traditionally worked in the consumer and over-the-counter arena. In response to client demand, it has been expanding its ethical PR team in recent months.

The rationale

The agency has had clients in the ethical arena for three years, but its focus has mainly been on OTC communications and patient education. 'Over the past 12 to 24 months, we have started to see that clients want more than the traditional pharma PR and medical education agencies could offer, so we made a decision to build our ethical team and target prescription-only clients,' says Pegasus PR deputy MD Simon Hackett.

'The industry is becoming more patient-focused and clients are increasingly looking for agencies that really understand consumers and the most effective messages and channels to reach them. This is at the core of our planning-driven approach,' adds Hackett.

Pegasus' approach

Previously, the agency had pharma experience in different agency teams that was brought together for projects. It now has a specific team led by account director Sallyanne Jones, who came from an exclusively pharma background. Hackett says: 'Because of our integrated model, we do not believe that we should launch a separate or independent division.'

Hackett believes it is the agency's blend of consumer experience and understanding of the regulatory environment that appeals to clients: 'This enables clients to have one agency taking them from policy level and secondary care through primary care and pharmacy to the patient. That is the whole healthcare message.'

Has it worked?

The agency is currently working with pharma firm Sanofi Aventis in dermatology, Thornton & Ross for analgesia and for a radio surgery client. It is also increasingly advising OTC and non-ethical clients on medical education strategies.

Hackett says Pegasus is looking to make a boardlevel appointment to focus entirely on new pharma business and expand its client base in that area: 'Pharma income is growing quicker than all other areas, so we are constantly looking for dynamic staff with pharma experience. But we will not employ anyone who does not demonstrate patient and consumer insight.'


Careful planning of an agency's offering and what type of team to put in place is essential, especially at senior level

Do not look for either consumer or pharma specialists. Look for candidates that can do both. This can help when offering clients a more blended approach

The regulations surrounding OTC products and nutrition claims are complex and specific to those industries. Ensure you have a team that can easily navigate those regulations

Demonstrate media expertise, both traditional and online. Good consumer and healthcare media contacts will help to attract consumer clients. Knowledge of social media and using them in a campaign is key with consumer healthcare brands

Show an understanding of the role of third-party endorsement in building brand credibility

Build up a strong advocacy network of key opinion leaders, patient advocacy groups and professional organisations

Have a distinct position - in a highly competitive sector, it is important that any new entrant has a robust USP.

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