Typical advertising and marketing approaches may immediately turn off a scientific audience. When addressing scientists, what things are must-haves? What are never-dos? Life science marketing guru and founder of UP FOR LIFE, Robert England, offers some sage advice.
Science and engineering have been at the forefront of many of the inventions that we enjoy today: the smartphone in your pocket, the rapid diagnostic home test for COVID, and the array of technologies in laboratories that ultimately help us to understand, protect and extend our lives and that of our natural environment.
Because we’re in an era of rapid technological advancements, many solutions are vying for the attention of decision makers. Life science, like other industries, has had to intensify marketing efforts to compete in this ‘noisy’ time. The need for innovative life science marketing will only grow in the future, as the life science industry itself booms and becomes perhaps one of the largest sectors in the world.
Life science marketers can certainly take lessons from other industries, applying those which are relevant and adapting best practices to the unique needs of its own target audience. As with all good marketing, let us begin by looking at the target audience and its common denominators.
Generally speaking, decision makers in the life sciences have a high level of education in science, medicine, engineering and/or business. There are many characteristics of people in these backgrounds which make them distinct in themselves, but there is a fundamental aspect that they all have in common: they respect a reasoned approach to any question.
This is one of the main reasons why writing for a life science audience requires you to win the confidence of your audience by showing that you know what you’re talking about, and that you are as transparent as possible with the facts. Any hiding or twisting of the facts is futile — you will only undermine confidence in your brand and what you are claiming. Think, instead, that you are writing to help somebody come to a faster, well-reasoned conclusion, aided by the concentrated wisdom that you are providing.
If you don't want to scare off your life science audience, avoid doing these 8 things in your marketing.
People running terrified from giant corporate marketing machines that threaten to eat them. [Image: Midjourney]
Eight ways to send your audience running
With this principle in mind, here are eight never-dos that I have spotted in typical advertising and promotion that are anathemas to a life science audience.
1. Talk only about yourself, and present only your own opinion
Actually, this point is generally true for all marketing, but essential when it comes to life science marketing. If you are thinking, “If I write it beautifully and sexily about my company/product/service, they will come running” – think again.
Remember that your audience is considering a certain question; perhaps a challenge they are facing, or ways to do their work more efficiently. In order to match their frame of reference, put yourself into their shoes. Be empathic, not prescriptive. Show you understand their pain.
Claiming expertise instead of demonstrating it also relegates your audience’s powers of analysis and decision – something that they are very proud of – to the basement. They want to make up their own mind, not be told what to think.
A very powerful antidote for this never-do is to seek and include the opinion of others, which I’m inserting here as third party comments. I asked several experienced life science marketers what they think about companies that praise themselves in their marketing. This is what they say:
“Companies that promote themselves too much are such a turn-off. They come across as arrogant and self-centered – and in today’s social media-first world, very outdated. In contrast, companies that elevate their customers, come across as humble and authentic and the sort of organization that people want to do business with because customers feel like they will matter.”
– Matt Wilkinson, PhD, MBA, Head of UP FOR LIFE
“You have two ears and one mouth. Try to listen and speak in those proportions.”
– Julian Stubbs, Co-Founder of UP THERE, EVERYWHERE
“I think they are missing out on the most valuable of gifts: real feedback, opinion and thoughts about what is great and what needs improvement, gaining momentum in the process by showing that you care.”
– Charlotte Wibäck, Head of UP FOR GOOD
Here you can see the power of external comment to support your claim – and the more external and unbiased, the better. In life science marketing, we often refer to this as gathering input from Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs). Including honest, relevant comments from outside thought leaders is essential.
2. Rely on hyperbole: ’paradigm shift’, ‘revolutionary’, ‘disruptive’, ‘extraordinary’, or ‘superior’
“If we only told the world that our invention is the best thing since sliced bread, we would be billionaires.”
Engineering-focused companies often tend to think that as long as they can provide a long list of functional benefits, the product will sell itself. This reminds me of the PC vs Mac war of the '90s and '00s. In essence, a PC with Windows could do everything the Mac could do, so everyone at IBM assumed that they would sweep up the market. They didn’t. Macs kept on selling in droves. Why? Because Macs were still fulfilling emotional and self-expressive value propositions.
It’s the same problem with hyperbole. When you use the ‘superior’ words, you put focus on the functional value of your offering. There are at least four major hazards in this approach. One: you may not always be able to stay in the lead to claim superiority. Two: the burden of evidence to prove superiority is upon you. Three: it only focuses on function, which detracts from the power of emotional fulfillment. And four: these messages are clichés; your audience has heard them many times before, and skepticism is super high.
This advertisement from Apple doesn’t talk that much about the functional benefits of a Mac, and can therefore sidestep any claims of superiority. It does mention in passing the benefits of Macs being more immune to viruses, but the main point is that it’s a friendlier, cooler option - emotional and self-expressive values.
In short: don’t assume that your audience’s respect of facts and transparency trumps the need to fulfill the emotional component.
Read more: Seven things scientists won't tell you about how they choose products, goods and services
3. Make claims without proof
In any marketing message, a claim without an underlying truth is merely false marketing. But in life science marketing, it simply won’t fly.
As a life science agency, we stress the importance of building and maintaining a claims matrix. This is especially important in companies working in regulated industries, like medical devices, but it’s also plain good practice in many of the businesses we work in. If you have to face an audit by an external regulating body like the USFDA or EMA, the claims matrix is a fundamental asset of your marketing. The claims matrix can take many forms, but in essence it is the curated body of proof, peer-reviewed studies and independent documentation that underpins your marketing claims.
4. Serve yourself, not your audience
A good way to look at life science marketing is that it should provide a clear value in itself. How can you create content that supports your target audience’s work? Be it a white paper, a framework to help them make a selection, or a simple way to calculate how they can save money, all these marketing tools help the customer. Whether they buy from you or not, they will remember the gesture of goodwill and it will inevitably strengthen your brand.
For example, New England Biolabs is one of the few companies that still publishes a printed catalog every other year. This may seem like an unnecessary expense in the digital age, but Andy Bertera, Executive Director of Marketing and Sales, explains that the value of their catalog isn’t so much in the list of products, but in the guide in the second half that contains technical tips, tools, scientific information and solutions in which the products are used.
“We find that customers are keeping some of their catalogues for 10 or 20 years,” Andy Bertera said.
5. Offer a low level of awareness of the alternatives
This is one of the greatest weaknesses because low awareness of other offerings can make your message head in the wrong direction and can therefore make your product, service or brand appear irrelevant. Especially in the life sciences, there are many different ways your audience can perform any given analysis, process or synthesis. Being aware of the alternatives can sharpen your value proposition. One of the smartest ways to do this is desk research.
Just spend a few hours looking at the websites and social media channels of relevant benchmarks and competitors, large and small. Look at what benefits they are proposing. How can you stand apart from what they are claiming? How can you stand head and shoulders above them with your message?
Being different isn’t the point - the point is to be more valuable than them, and express it in a memorable way. In the process, you are providing a shortcut for your audience to truly understand the value that you can deliver, better than anyone else can. This exercise is also fundamental to establish your position in the market - what are you going to stand for? The cheapest? The hardest-working? The most powerful? The friendliest? The most caring?
Positioning is one of the most valuable marketing exercises that you can do for your company, because it helps to crystalize what singular benefit it should stand for in the long term in the mind of your audience, and therefore make it easier for them to remember, trust and choose you.
6. Overcomplicate your message
Life sciences is without a doubt one of the most complicated technical sectors in the world. It might actually account for the message conservatism and the low level of creativity that permeates the industry. Here at UP, we see it as a major opportunity to add value to our clients.
Just because the underlying technology is complicated, doesn’t mean that your marketing message must also be complex. Quite the opposite. The harder things are to understand, the harder we must work at making them easy to comprehend and grasp. This is the ultimate service that we are providing as marketers: helping the audience think through and choose what is best for their business.
7. Be unimaginative
Being dry, unwitty and merely factual will kill any message, no matter how beneficial the product may be. And this is where creativity plays a major role. Creativity has the power to excite, to inspire and to ignite. It helps you to stand out from the crowd, and it helps people fall in love with your brand.
Creativity is strangely maligned in the life science industry. Some agencies think it’s fine to show people in lab coats for every piece of marketing - I vehemently disagree. It dehumanizes science and stereotypes the scientist to the lowest denominator, making everything seem boring, complicated and esoteric.
Science is like every innovative industry. By focusing on the good that you can do, you will inspire the audience to believe in your cause.
8. Be negative
One of the weaknesses of the climate change lobby is the ‘the end is nigh’ messaging. Don’t get me wrong: climate change is perhaps the most serious issue of this generation. But to create a movement, messaging has to imbue a sense of hope, the opportunity of change and to reverse the trend through systemic change.
The messages from Kurtzgesagt - In a Nutshell embrace the positivism that I’m talking about, and the citation of experts in their fields. Their leadership in messaging science and technology on issues affecting everyone is exemplary. Have a look at their video on combating climate change. Rarely have I seen a message that gives so much hope on the topic. Just promise me: watch it to the end.
In conclusion: stay positive, stay true
I reflect upon the words of a good friend of mine, David Hanzel, who once said that humanity has survived every natural and man-made threat so far, so what’s the reason for all the pessimism? The mantra is: stay positive and stay grounded in what we know to be true. Use honesty in your messages, but get to the core of what it means to your audience on an emotional level. This is also fundamental to good life science marketing.
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