Taking Notes: Ethnography and Pharma Marketing

By November 6, 2008Uncategorized

In advising clients on relationship marketing, one of the topics we hammer on relentlessly is the importance of understanding how a chronic condition affects patients' daily lives. In his Customer Experience Matters blog, Bruce Temkin wrote a nice post yesterday about Wells Fargo using ethnography to understand, in depth, how to communicate effectively with clients. It's fascinating stuff, and has major implications for pharma.

In case you're not familiar with the term (I wasn't) ethnography is an academic discipline that's the branch of anthropology that deals with specific human cultures. It's the study of how people live their daily lives, and how their culture, situation and background affects how patients cope with a particular disease, how they treat it, and how it affects their daily lives. A big part of how you do it is observing their daily lives, taking and compiling careful notes, and interpreting what you've seen.

Ethnography is accurate because it's rigorous. It's based in close observation of the subject, the gathering of data, and the interpretation of that data to uncover qualitative information about how real people really do things. The findings this kind of work provides often flatly contradict what we believe we know — information and points of view we've gathered through other approaches, or even through completely unsubstantiated beliefs.

Failing to do your ethnographic homework can result in products that solve problems nobody really cares about. It can mean missing critical day-to-day aspects of a product or a therapy that are incredibly important to patients, but completely unknown to pharma companies that fail to do deep, in-person research. And in marketing, it can mean failing to communicate with your patients in a way they can understand, relate to and respond to.

Wells Fargo's study taught them a lot. They learned that:

  • Customers wanted the bank to communicate like it knew them, similar
    to other communications they received from organizations like AARP.
  • Marketing messages, especially those with presumptive language
    like ”Congratulations!” or “Good News,” were viewed quite negatively;
    customers used words like “ploy” and “scheme” to describe them.
  • The bank could mitigate negative reactions to bad news like a
    notice of insufficient funds if the communications provided relevant

Now, mentally replace this customer with a patient who is suffering from Crohn's Disease. Constant abdominal pain, frequent trips to the restroom, nausea. How does this affect their daily lives? How does this change the way they work, the way they relate to family and friends, and most important of all, how do you communicate with them? Do you use a tone similar to the Wells Fargo model — as if you know them — or do you pitch your information a little lower, and little more clinically. When you discuss side effects and unpleasant aspects of the condition, should you also include suggestions for how to handle them, or should these go elsewhere? And so on.

Essentially, for the pharma marketer, ethnographic research provides the final measure of knowing, as opposed to guessing or surmising. It's the difference between reading about what it's like to ride a motorcycle, or hopping on one and kicking the starter. And used carefully, and rigorously, it can be the difference between a prolonged, healthy relationship with a patient, based on really understanding them, and a patient who, after a few months, isn't your patient any more.