Brand Building Through Story-telling

By September 16, 2009Uncategorized

This week, we take a turn from Direct Marketing — hard core, practical and always useful — to a more intangible approach to communication to patients and doctors: Story-telling.

I came across this great treatise by a Michael Margolis ( and it is soooooooooooo missing from pharma/biotech and yet so completely applicable and compelling.

Story-telling. The eight precepts he focuses on are a bit revolutionary for pharma/biotech:

  1. The very act of naming something transforms our relationship to it.
  2. Brands (just like the naming process) are the symbolic and psychic containers for communicating the meaning of stuff.
  3. A Brand’s Story equals the collective sum of perceptions and representations of the brand as told by everyone.
  4. Every storyteller has a brand, just as every brand has its stories.
  5. Origins – Create a back-story for your brand with a clear sense of beginning.
  6. Ethos – We all need something to believe in. Distinguish yourself with personality.
  7. Cultural Contribution – Brands live and die within a cultural context.
  8. Just as we are hard-wired for storytelling, we are hard-wired for brands.

Why this could be so powerful is simple and we see some basic uptake of this approach in Web sites using video to tell their stories from a patient perspective — Wyeth does it for the hormone replacement franchise, or UCB for Vimpat and companies like Snow & Associates have done very well with bringing humanity and empathy through grass roots patient events.

But that is the surface level of what story-telling is all about.  Social Media, the current darling and devil-in-the-details for pharma/biotech, is about story-telling, but it is unfocused, all over the place; and while it has the mantle of authenticity, Social Media has a random, uncontrolled feeling to it, whether it is Facebook or a message board on

True story-telling is how a brand helped create or facilitate something greater in one's life. And with our industry, the stories are everywhere, the belief in a brand that helped someone get to a better place in their life are rife.

I happened to interview four post-kidney-transplant patients over the past few weeks. What amazed me was how little they all spoke about their kidney and how much they spoke of the people who helped them, the experience of feeling free (of the dialysis machine) and how they were exploring so many new and different avenues that they had not before. Now the drug we market helped make these dreams and aspirations possible; they were all energized and inspired. One was exploring a new career as a translator; another was helping write patient brochures from is perspective to help people…on and on. But their was no emotional connection or recognition of that Brand's role. Imagine if there was.

And story-telling is a multi-platform strategy — Inner Space ( did it on documentary form. But it can be done online easily — like ethnography's. Or what about a vanity press book of patient's stories. Or a video blog which feeds into your unbranded patient site.

But what is the deal-killer here is that many pharma/biotech people are too careful and thus suck the authenticity out of a person's story. Suddenly it feels "canned", artificial, over-produced. So, when you see those patient videos on product Web sites, although those voices can add credibility, the perfect production values, the smooth editing and the short, neat video clips can come across as phony. Exactly the opposite of what you are trying to convey. Whatever you do, do not confuse a patient testimonial with story-telling.

I think the pursuit of Social Media is a great way for clients to learn how to embrace story-telling and authenticity; it is the baby step. Seriously, read those 8 rules and ponder your brand plans, patient plans, your Social Media — are you doing it in the best way? Are you mucking up a great strategy with phony execution? 

Join the discussion One Comment

  • Hi Alfred,
    Thanks for connecting the dots between brand storytelling and the pharma-health industry. So often pharma marketing seems more like a cheesy lecture than a geniune conversation. Add insult to injury, health topics are filled with emotion. So being on the receiving end of really off-putting marketeeze is sure to stir up some negative associations.
    There’s a really great pharma brand story marketing example that I love, and that’s the Nick Jonas commercial for OmniPod diabetes monitoring system. have you seen it? Simply wonderful engaging storytelling. I don’t listen to the Jonas Bros (LOL!) and I don’t have diabetes but I became geniunely interested in the product. OmniPod’s website also collects a lot of customer stories, and ran various contests to do so –
    Just as you suggest, the value of first person stories is always great. Although it is not always possible, with the various regulatory limits in how pharma marketing is done. If nothing else, I advocate strongly for pharma marketing to shift the narrative point of orientation, and make your audience the center of the story, instead of being “talked to”. Talk in terms and language that reflect what your audience would say to themselves about the topic. Basically, tell a story they can locate themselves into.
    Michael Margolis

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