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Pharma wades into the world of virtual reality marketing


The scene opens with ambulance alarms sounding. Emily, a bicyclist struck by a car, lies on the pavement as a team of EMT workers maneuver her onto a backboard.

Viewers watch it all through the eyes of one of those workers, Han, a migraine sufferer. His vision slowly gets blurrier and the whooping of the sirens turns to a dull ringing noise. The scene fades away as a voiceover intones, “Two in three sufferers downplay the severity of their migraine while at work,” guiding viewers to the website for GlaxoSmithKline plc’s Excedrin (aspirin/paracetamol/caffeine).

It’s one of the latest examples of pharma companies investing in virtual reality (VR) to market their products. Though several years old, the technology is still considered a novel way to educate consumers about a disease or convince physicians to prescribe a certain treatment.

It’s early days, with drugmakers still figuring out where VR fits into their larger sales strategies. Digital marketing specialists note the technology is more successful at telling particular stories, depending on factors like therapeutic area.

Defining return on investment can also be tricky given that often the aim of VR campaigns is to elicit empathy — a metric more difficult to measure than revenue or prescription volume. There’s also the question of whether VR will be a lasting tool for pharma marketers, or fall to the wayside as newer innovations steal its shine.

At least for now, it looks as though VR has taken root across some of the biggest names in drugmaking. Pfizer Inc. and Novartis AG are deploying the technology in the lab; Amgen Inc. offers a virtual tour of its manufacturing facilities on its website; and Merck KGaA has experimented with its branding applications. Kalorama Information, a research firm focused on healthcare, estimates the virtual reality market for healthcare in the U.S. grew from $525 million in 2012 to nearly $1 billion by spring 2017.

Make them feel it

In the realm of marketing, the draw of VR stems from its immersive quality. VR headsets provide 360-degree sights and surround sound, while more advanced versions incorporate touch and smells. The technology allows users to take a ride through the body’s blood stream, see a drug’s mechanism of action (MOA) up close and personal, or feel what it’s like to live with the symptoms of a disease.

“If you can put someone in the experience and they’re feeling it, they’re seeing it, you can do haptics where something’s moving around you, you can have things like wind, really get the senses moving so it’s not just sound and sight,” said Annemarie Crivelli, director of digital for Cambridge BioMarketing, a pharm ad and communications agency.

“They’re remembering it in a different way. They actually have more sense immersed in that message or in that experience.”

The immersion can increase engagement, a key goal for pharma sales forces, which have seen their access to and time in front of physicians diminish in recent years.

Doctors have been drawn to VR experiences that depict how a novel MOA works in the body, according to Crivelli, whereas consumers and patients have had deeper responses to experiences that give them a better understanding of a disease.

Engagement also differs by therapeutic area. It’s more straightforward to develop a simulation for eye illnesses or movement disorders than diseases that have less impact on the senses.

Certain specialists like oncologists may see it as not vital to their work, according to David Cherry, chief experience officer at Sudler & Hennessey LLC.

He’s found it’s less troublesome getting urologists, for instance, to set aside five or 10 minutes to talk to a sales rep than it is an oncologist.

“There are more and more drugs that are moving downstream out of the oncology space into urology, so urologists are starting to be asked to deal with patients who have moved from enlarged prostate to prostate cancer,” he said. “They’re more prepared to spend time because they have more to learn, and because VR may be a more immersive and interesting experience.”

The pay off

VR tools are expensive. The obvious hardware — headsets like Oculus Rifts or wearables like Google Glass, retail for hundreds of dollars — as well as the less obvious, like iPads for times when the full 3D experience isn’t feasible. A campaign also requires players responsible for creating digital pharma content: storyboard artists, medical strategists, copywriters, medical illustrators and 3D animators.

Where drug developers bear the most significant costs, however, is in making sure they abide by the strict regulations for pharmaceutical marketing.

“If we’re showing how a molecule works, for example, we have to make sure that what we’re showing is in alignment with what the FDA has approved us to say,” Cherry said. “It has to be clear to a medical and scientific audience that what it’s doing is actually what the drug does, but that process is never a cheap one.”

The costs call into question the payoff of using VR versus less involved marketing tactics. The answers vary by product, audience and message.

In that first category, Cherry has noticed drugmakers using VR to spread the word about new, innovative products as well as to “refresh and revitalize” some of their older brands. GSK fits the bill with the VR experience it built for Excedrin, which first gained Food and Drug Administration approval in 1998.

“We spend over 50% of our media budget on digital, and every one of our brands is looking at mobile and VR to better dimensionalize and tell their story,” Dominic Iacono, marketing director for respiratory and pain relief at GSK North America, said at last year’s SM2 Innovation Summit, according to Mobile Marketer. The comments followed a strong 2016 for GSK’s consumer unit, which grew 9% year over year, helped in part by a double-digit growth from the Excedrin franchise due to the the product’s Gel-tabs format and promotional efficiencies.

VR’s novelty can get physicians excited about a therapy — and potentially improve the odds they’ll prescribe it. Campaigns targeting consumers, meanwhile, can paint visceral pictures of the toll a disease takes on the body, reinforcing the notion that it’s imperative to stay on regimen.

“‘If you don’t do this, you might die.’ People get told that all the time, and they still don’t do anything. It’s unbelievable,” Seth Perlman, chief digital officer at New York-based greyhealth group, told BioPharma Dive.

“But if you show a patient with rheumatoid arthritis what it’s going to be like in 10 years to move a glass of water from one surface to another and not spill it … if you can show them that being non-compliant or non-adherent is really going to impact their quality of life, you have a great chance of keeping them on therapy longer — and that’s a direct ROI for a pharma company because longer on drug, longer on therapy obviously results in increased sales.”

Other VR campaigns simply aim to educate people about a disease or (hopefully) make them more empathetic toward those dealing with it. While those campaigns may not have as much intrinsic financial benefit of the ones targeting doctors and patients, they may soon offer valuable insights to marketers both in and out of pharma.

“Tracking biometrics and things that are behavior based — their reaction to the content or experience. That type of intelligence and knowledge and data is important, and I think this platform can allow us to get more data than we normally would be able to get,” Cambridge BioMarketing’s Crivelli said.

Just another fad?

VR experiences have been around for more than half a decade — a lifetime when it comes to technology — raising concerns over whether they stand a chance at serving as long-term tools in the pharma marketer’s belt.

“We and other companies were fairly successful with this in the 2013, 2014 experience, but by the time we got to 2015, 2016 it felt like when you walked onto the floor at ASCO, almost everyone had some VR experience to the point where it wasn’t interesting anymore,” Cherry said.

“Like iPads were great when they first came out because just by pulling out the iPad you could engage with the physician. It had the ‘it’s cool’ factor. We built a Google Glass experience, which was great for about six months and then Google Glass tanked in a big way and suddenly we had Google Glasses sitting around the agency,” he added.

The hardware that creates VR universes is also a strain, particularly when augmented reality (AR) like the kind seen on Snapchat often requires just a phone to use.

Still, drug companies are holding out on the differentiated experiences of VR.

“Those isolated-from-the-world simulations of what something down the road might look like for you is very difficult to do as memorably with AR,” Perlman said.

“You could certainly imagine an example where I hold my phone over my hand and then I can see progressively actually what happens to my joints in my fingers — that might be a visceral way of showing ‘wow, this is almost like an X-ray of my own hand that’s simulating what happens,’ and that might be very meaningful.

“But the ability to try and move the glass of water without spilling it is something you really can’t accomplish except in VR … So I think that there’s still a lot of opportunity and a lot of investment in VR that’s going to be meaningful at least for the next several years.”



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