The human side of life sciences marketing has been discussed for years – sometimes leading to the conclusion that scientists are purely analytical and care little about anything other than the facts. I make the case that scientists are perhaps the most emotional people of them all.
Imagine for a moment that you decide to take your significant other, a science-loving PhD-student, home to meet your parents. You are very proud of this person, and you believe that your parents will also be impressed, not least because you managed to find someone so smart who likes you back. But when you proudly announce that your love is doing postgraduate studies and will soon be referred to as “Doctor”, your mother replies, “Yeah, but not a REAL doctor, right?”
It’s not uncommon for a Doctor of Science to face underwhelming awe and respect from the reality-TV watching general public compared to the levels of admiration that a Doctor of Medicine garners. Why should that be? Scientists must be very dedicated and passionate about their work in order to complete such a rigorous course of studies. Yet, somehow, academic research is seen as second-tier compared to, for example, medicine or law, or even economics. But people who choose the path of science must be doing it for a reason, right?
Ask yourself why you chose the job that you do. Was it just for money and convenience? Or did you choose it because you believe in its importance? Here, I propose, is where scientists tend toward the latter. Science requires an interested mind, concentrated study and intensely hard work — a passion, even, for the study. But remuneration, stability and fame are rarely part of the deal.
Why scientists do it
People who choose a science career typically embark on a path with no expectation of getting rich or having doors opened for them. They are driven by another, very human motivation. Many will say that they want to contribute to a better, more enlightened world. Or perhaps they are driven by a personal need “to know.”
The truth is, most people don’t understand what scientists do, or what it takes to earn a PhD. Science is a lifelong training in breaking through the frontier of knowledge on an esoteric subject, formulating good questions to ask, doing experiments, publishing conclusions and constantly getting challenged on them. All in the pursuit of expanding the wealth of human knowledge.
For scientists, the value and reward of work is not how much money they can make, or how good it is for the business they’re working for, or what kind of productivity gains they can achieve. They tend to be motivated by the belief that knowledge and understanding are good for humanity.
This choice is clearly based on emotion, rather than a cold analytical calculation of their own benefit – what economists might call ‘utility’. This endeavor for the greater good – like another human quality, altruism – requires a leap into the unknown and a great deal of personal investment. I’d like to focus on that behavior, and the tendency of the scientific community towards it.
How motivations affect communication
If the motivation that drives scientists was recognized more often, the messages that we use to reach out to the scientific community would be significantly different. Take a look at your traditional fact-based marketing campaign in life sciences – “this instrument is X% faster than that instrument”.
If you go a level deeper than just the technical specs, your message might look like, “You have this problem in the lab and this widget will help you solve that problem”. However, this still only talks about the single benefit to the individual or the collective benefit to the lab. It’s based on the rather mundane concept of utility. I intend to go a level further.
Communications can focus on the facts (specifications), benefits (solving a specific problem), or motivations (emotional truths). Which works best with scientists?
Instead, let’s focus on some factors that are true human motivators for scientists. For example: to achieve something that has never been done before; or to bring completely new insights into view; or to bring new ways of exploring into reach; or to derive and investigate an original idea. I think that scientists are selected, and succeed in their training, when they pursue just these goals.
Are scientists’ motivations all good?
There are light and dark sides in the pursuit of knowledge. Take, for example, the latest wonder technology, CRISPR. It can be applied for great good, but it can be equally applied in inappropriate ways. We need to ensure that policymakers are well informed so that appropriate controls are in place.
How can we ensure that research is given the space to explore avenues without overstepping boundaries? It is up to us as ethical people to make the distinction between right and wrong choices, and good and bad actions. Science has little to instruct here; here we are dependent on the good judgment of enlightened minds.
I’m not claiming that all scientists’ motives are angelic. Other dark sides include plagiarism, falsifying results and scaremongering. Scientists can also be motivated by emotion and ambition, in the wrong ways. I’m concentrating on positive motivations to help us understand what marketing messages might resonate well with scientists.
Can a brand sway a scientist?
The trend is getting stronger for life science and technology companies to do more interesting things with their branding and communications, and to speak to the emotional motivators of scientists with their messaging.
Jenoptik rolled out refreshed brand identity with clarified values, which was encapsulated in the company's tag line: More Light:
Many of our clients want to clearly express their raison d’être. This is where the journey begins of establishing their brand. We have to help people to clarify, or even get them to ask themselves the question, “Why do we go to work every day?”. (After the pandemic, this question might be more relevant than ever.) What do we want to do with our lives? What are we trying to do with our work? These are central questions to branding, addressing the purpose of the organization.
Silk Road Medical innovation allows vascular surgeons to address carotid artery disease while reducing the risk of stroke and side effects:
These might be expressed in the company’s vision and mission statement. Getting these statements to reverberate, to be credible and motivational, means you should get them as close as possible to the company’s true DNA. Otherwise, they are just so many words.
Nurture a science brand worth trusting
Perhaps the most crucial quality of a brand is that it must be authentic. Scientists are wary of overstatement; they appreciate truth and proof. Anything artificial in the brand will undermine confidence in it.
To achieve an authentic brand, it’s essential to get to know the company and their science. This requires knowledge to understand the business, to pinpoint their true value, and to understand the environment in which they operate.
Getting the organization’s brand right requires constructive creativity – to create a dream or a vision of the future that is unique to the organization, easily understood, achievable and valuable. The goal is to create a brand that scientists can believe in, and that they want to associate themselves with.
Here, an exercise in value propositions is important. Consider three types of value propositions:
- Functional. Value propositions can be functional; these are propositions that you can probably attach a number to. For instance, samples analyzed/hour, bases sequenced/minute. These may be factual, but they are hardly ever the propositions that make a scientist choose a brand.
- Emotional. Then there are emotional value propositions, which I maintain are very important to the scientist. These may be related to all the aspects I’ve listed above: empowering discovery, benefitting humanity, improving health and knowledge.
- Self-expressive. And not least are self-expressive value propositions: what their choice says about the scientist. This can be very relevant for many life science brands like Illumina, Zeiss and Eppendorf, where the brands speak of a certain status.
Branding at its best does just that: it defines an authentic set of propositions that attracts scientists to invest in them. Everything the organization does and says, should be true to the value proposition. It should impact every single communication that the organization releases. This is the true meaning of being ‘on brand’.
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