Healthcare brands are struggling to tell compelling stories that consumers care about, new research suggests. In spite of increasing opportunities for private sector companies within the National Health Service, even the most established over-the-counter (OTC) brands in the industry have a long way to go before matching the levels of engagement that other consumer goods brands achieve.
Brand storytelling agency Aesop asked a sample of 1,250 consumers to rate a shortlist of 40 OTC healthcare brands against 10 storytelling criteria. This included asking respondents to select the brands they feel are ‘memorable’, those that have ‘a clear sense of purpose’ and those ‘that create their own world’. The overall ranking, calculated from the combined average scores across the 10 criteria, names Vaseline as the number one storytelling brand, followed by E45, Vicks, Colgate and Durex.
Nick Dutnall, director at Aesop, explains that the agency decided to focus on health brands because of recent efforts within the NHS to encourage more people to consult pharmacists about their ailments rather than visiting the doctor. Last October NHS England ran a public awareness campaign called ‘Feeling under the weather’ that urged people “to nip health problems in the bud” by seeking early advice from their local pharmacist.
The six-week campaign, which ran across print, outdoor and radio adverts, reflects the wider strategy within the health service to alleviate the pressure on GP surgeries and hospital A&E departments.
However Dutnall argues that while OTC health products are set to play an increasingly prominent role in people’s lives, many are not engaging consumers with their brand stories. This is particularly challenging for health brands given that people only tend to buy when they experience discomfort – meaning that for the rest of the time such brands are not top of mind.
“Going to a pharmacist feels more like a consumer dynamic – you’re there as a consumer wanting to remain well, rather than being ill in front of the doctor,” he says.
“The issue for many [OTC health] brands is that they’ve not really created more than just a product that you know from memory. I think increasingly those brands need to stand for something more than just the ailment or treatment area that they’re working in.”
The research shows that cold relief is the best performing brand category in the ranking, followed by antiseptic and then dental. Categories such as pain relief, digestion and vitamin/nutrition supplements appear lower down.
According to Dutnall, this demonstrates that certain categories of OTC health brands are more consumer-friendly and hence find it easier to tell their stories. By contrast products of a more medicinal nature fare less well because the benefits behind them are harder to communicate.
Neurofen is the highest-placed pain relief brand at number 10, putting it behind the likes of Lempsip, TCP and Oral-B, while Rennie is the best performing digestion brand in 13th place. A breakdown of the results for different storytelling criteria also shows that neither pain relief nor digestion brands appear as top 10 brands that respondents ‘are intrigued to see what they will do next’.
Despite the challenge of communicating the science behind their remedies, Dutnall argues that such brands should work harder to create an emotional connection with consumers. “It’s lazy advertising to always just say ‘let’s show them how the thing works’,” he suggests.
“As a consumer I don’t really care how it works. I don’t know how Castrol GTX works better than other oils I might put in my car, yet there’s something about brands that you know and trust.”
He believes that Vaseline’s position at the top of the overall ranking is testament to its rich brand heritage, combined with an ability to move with the times. This includes efforts by the brand to extend its reach from healthcare into beauty by launching new products and by creating online content focused on fashion and beauty tips.
Dutnall notes that many OTC health brands have failed to replicate this success in their content marketing because of consumers’ general apathy towards the products concerned. He suggests that marketers in this sector should think more laterally about the content they produce in order to drive preference towards their brands.
“Content has become a bit of a buzzword in recent times, but essentially it means standing for something more than just a straightforward advert,” he says. “It’s becoming something that emotionally resonates and that really means something more than just the product itself.”