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The Impact of Storytelling in Effective Pharmaceutical Marketing Communication

Taking a human approach for bolder brand and portfolio narratives

Authored by Maxine Smith, Managing Director and Amelia Hutchins, Marketing Communication Director, Uptake for PME Innovative Impact Blog.

By anyone’s standards, storytelling has experienced a remarkable ascent within the marketing landscape since 2012. Prior to this, according to LinkedIn[1],, not a single marketer listed storytelling as a skill on their profile. By 2013, following a few key events, including the release of Jonathan Gottschall’s ‘The Storytelling Animal’, 7% of the world’s marketers considered themselves professional storytellers – and, a decade on, this figure is holding strong. But how many pharma marketers could confidently say the same?

As is often the way in the consumer brand world, Nike put its best trainer-clad foot forward as an early-adopter of storytelling in this transformational period. In 2012, the brand launched its ‘Find Your Greatness’ campaign[2] during the London Olympics. The campaign featured everyday athletes striving to achieve their goals, inspiring viewers with stories of perseverance and determination. By showcasing relatable individuals, Nike successfully engaged consumers’ emotions and motivated them to pursue their own version of ‘greatness’.

We feel that even in the complex, data-driven world of pharma, there are lessons to be learned from the past 10+ years of storytelling successes.

The integration of behavioural science

Increasingly, consumer brands have recognised that captivating narratives could forge deeper connections with consumers, driving engagement, brand loyalty, and, ultimately, commercial shifts. This strategy evolution has been influenced further by ground-breaking theories in behavioural science, notably Daniel Kahneman’s work, documented in ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’[3]. Through the integration of storytelling and behavioural science, brands have successfully transformed the effectiveness of their communication, adapting it to changing human needs.

Kahneman’s book explores the concept of two cognitive systems that shape human decision-making processes: the fast, instinctive, and emotional ‘System 1,’ and the slow, deliberate, and rational ‘System 2.’ This distinction is highly relevant to storytelling in marketing; capturing consumers’ attention and evoking an emotional response through storytelling engages System 1, making it more likely for consumers to form positive associations and memories with the brand.

Traditionally, the B2B world and, especially, the pharma world focused purely on the facts and the data, catering to System 2 thinking. However, with the rise of storytelling many B2B brands have recognised the need to appeal to the human receiving the message, and their associated emotions. System 1 thinking is easier for humans to do, and therefore communication designed to appeal to System 1 lands more effectively. We would argue that pharma marketers now need to be bolder when we are constructing our narratives. By highlighting the challenges, successes and transformative outcomes experienced, using clear and plain words, underpinned by the global scientific narrative, pharma brands have a better opportunity to establish trust, credibility and emotional resonance.

Storytelling at portfolio level

Where storytelling becomes exceptionally powerful is in the successful and seamless application of simply articulated, memorable narratives across brand portfolios. There is so much potential in crafting overarching stories that connect multiple brands under a unified theme. This ‘narrative ecosystem’ is able to deepen brand meaning further and foster even stronger emotional connections.

Back in the consumer brand world, this can be readily seen in the automobile industry. Brands like BMW and Audi have developed interconnected stories that extend beyond individual car models. BMW’s ‘Ultimate Driving Machine’ and Audi’s ‘Vorsprung durch Technik’ campaigns exemplify this strategy. These narratives position the brands as embodying certain values and lifestyle choices, aiming to appeal to consumers who share those ideals.

The emergence of storytelling in healthcare

Across our industry, it would be unfair to say that storytelling hasn’t begun to emerge as a concept, but, understandably, it has been slow and steady, primarily remaining in the ‘safe-zone’ of clinical data, common summary phrases and product features. However, as the human recipients of our communications increasingly seek transparency and meaningful connections, pharmaceutical brands are beginning to embrace storytelling to bridge the gap between products and patient experiences.

Johnson & Johnson’s ‘Campaign for Nursing’s Future’ is a simple example of this shift[4]. The campaign utilised storytelling to honour and celebrate the role of nurses in patient care. By highlighting real stories of nurses’ dedication and compassion, Johnson & Johnson aimed to establish an emotional connection with its audience, while simultaneously promoting its commitment to healthcare. This approach not only humanises the brand but also strengthens its reputation and credibility.

‘Once upon a time’

The need to ‘speak in plain human’ and appeal to System 1 thinking is clear, but during workshops and discussions, pharma marketers are still struggling to break away from traditional communication patterns, as if hooked by bungee rope to the data and blanket terms, like ‘Quality of Life’.

We suggest standing back from your portfolio to get a view of the bigger picture, and starting with what will work best for your internal audience; ask yourself, what is it that lands easily for you? What is the narrative that helps you to make sense of your ‘why’? What truths can you tell, about your portfolio, and what gets you emotional when you talk about what you do? Break down those blanket terms to make them resonate in a more human way.

Then, think about your external audience, and tailor the building blocks of your story, imagining that each stakeholder role is playing a traditional part in it: Is the HCP the hero? The Payer the challenger? What is the action you want them to take as a consequence of hearing the story play out? Think about how the message will appeal to their System 1 thinking, and the ways you can bring in the foundational science and data to appeal to their System 2.

‘Happily ever after’

The evolution of storytelling based on behavioural science offers us solutions that overcome many of our traditional communication challenges. We encourage you to think about ways we can use this knowledge to enable our brands and portfolios to establish far deeper emotional connections, and influence actions more effectively. As the marketing landscape continues to change, we are positive that the role of storytelling will continue to grow, so putting the human at the centre of our thinking, whichever audience we are communicating with, is critical to success.

Click to read the published version in PME magazine