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Marketing defines perception

Over the past couple of years, health and healthcare providers have taken centre stage in the eyes of patients and consumers globally. And it’s no secret why. But one thing is for sure, the attention is not going away anytime soon.

Thanks to the pandemic, communities and individuals are now placing a higher priority on seeking reputable advice about their health and are looking for ways to manage and take ownership of their own health to greater lengths unlike anything seen before.

And industry marketers around the world are capitalising on this.

In 2020 alone, at the height of the pandemic, US pharmaceutical companies spent over $6.58 billion on direct-to-consumer marketing, and closer to home, it’s been reported that some major big box chemists continually spend in excess of $100 million per annum individually.

Now while our regulatory bodies in Australia have very different opinions as to how and what a pharmaceutical company can advertise compared to some of our overseas companions, patients globally are exposed to unprecedented access to health information thanks to the digital information age.

On one hand, their access to information has greatly increased their health literacy, but on the other, it has also helped to fuel the fire of disinformation, hate speech and dissent for healthcare practitioners and the health industry at large.

In short, the perception of our industry has radically shifted over the past few decades, and even more so in the past couple of years. Without intervention, our patients will grow increasingly wary of our roles as healthcare providers and instead shift to perceive us as largely purveyors of products in pursuit of profits.

But when it comes to defining how we are perceived and what we market ourselves to be, it’s apparent that we have become our own worst enemy.

We have forgotten our foundational principles, the reason why we exist and what we stand for. Instead, we ourselves now use language to define our businesses and our own industry that focuses on retail rather than community.

And as such, so do our patients.

Still Australia's Favourite Jelly Bean

The Notion of Retail Pharmacy

From co-founding and launching his first Harvey Norman department store in 1982 to what it is today, Gerry Harvey knows a thing or two about retailing.

But with this enormous growth, his definition of ‘retail’ remains relatively simple.


— Gerry Harvey

Growing up in the world of pharmacy, I always knew pharmacy as one of two things: community or hospital pharmacy.

Looking at Gerry’s definition though, one must wonder why we now define pharmacy in the same light.

When and what led us to define ourselves as retail pharmacy?

Are we now just simply buyers and sellers? Take a moment to recall when you last:

  • switched on the TV (if you still watch free-to-air TV)
  • picked up the newspaper (if you still read the newspaper)
  • turned on the radio (if you still listen to radio)
  • saw an advertisement online while scrolling through your social media account.

More likely than not, you would have seen or heard an ad for a pharmacy.

Even more likely, you would have seen or heard about a product featured in that ad.

And while watching or listening to the ad, one could easily believe that they were immersed in something from any typical retail outlet.

But soon the consumer (yes, they are a consumer at this point – not a patient) realises that these products aren’t available at their typical retailer.

Towards the end of the ad though, it’s revealed that the stockists are in fact pharmacies and the consumer would need to purchase these products from their local pharmacy.

It’s at this point marketers do what they do best.

They define what the viewer or listener should be thinking and ultimately create a perception of the product and the pharmacy that stocks this.

To further solidify this, take a moment to think about the language marketers use to describe or alienate you.

In many ads they do this by simply using one word – ‘good’.

Have you heard the phrase ‘only available at all good pharmacies’ before?

If so, the marketer has created the perception that only ‘good’ pharmacies stock these products and are thus better suited to help solve the consumer’s (or soon-to-be patient’s) ailments.

But here lies the problem.

The perception being created is not just that these products are available at ‘good’ pharmacies, but also subjecting those not listed on the ad to be classified as ‘bad’ pharmacies.

To be known as a ‘good’ pharmacy, you, as the pharmacy owner, operator or employee would most likely need to:

  • stock the advertised product (aka pay the pharmaceutical company to be featured in their ad) or
  • run your own ad and get funding from the pharmaceutical company to feature their product.

But ultimately, you would need to ensure that you bought enough of the product to sell it at a competitive price.

For many pharmacies, this exposure is what they aspire to achieve at the behest of companies with multi-billion-dollar budgets, often with little thought or regard to what they are truly spending their money on and their actual return on investment.

All in the pursuit to be labelled as ‘good’.

Now don’t get me wrong, we as an industry rely on retail product sales to pay the bills. Like a surgeon’s product is performing an operation, our retail products help us to deliver holistic health solutions.

But there’s the key difference.

Our retail products were previously used as an enabler to provide holistic solutions to our patients, not just to be bought, put on the shelf and simply sold.

Instead today, we get labelled as ‘good’ simply by following Gerry Harvey’s definition of retail.

All of this has led to one thing… a dramatic change in being perceived from being health practitioners to simply being retailers.

Defining The Perception

But all is not yet lost.

Some pharmacies have solidified themselves and created the narrative that has defined the way they are perceived, not only by their community and patients, but by their colleagues and other allied health professionals.

So how do they define the perception?

Firstly, we need to appreciate that we all perceive things in our own way. Take the world of art for example, one person might absolutely love a painting, another person might loathe it and yet another might not understand what they are looking at altogether.

That’s because we all have our own values and place different priorities on them.

In order to define how we are perceived, we need to have a clear understanding of our own values and our patient’s values.

Secondly, we need to communicate what our values are to attract like-minded people.

And thirdly, we need to ensure that the values of those we serve are always aligned to our own.

Because it is through the alignment of our values that we become known for what we stand for.

It is the communication of our values that ultimately becomes our marketing message.

It is our values that provide us with the definition of the perception we wish to create of ourselves.

And through demonstration of our values, we build a loyal following and a lasting legacy.

In essence, we speak through our values to our target market.

But what are we actually saying that is creating the perception that we are now retailers rather than healthcare professionals?

Let’s take a look at some of the most common messages we are now sending to our patients:

  • Best Price Guaranteed
  • Largest Range
  • We beat everyone’s prices

As a patient or consumer, what values would these messages speak to?

Would you say it’s about health? Would you say it’s about price? Or would you say it’s about product?

The problem though isn’t these messages alone.

It’s the confusion that comes next.

On the same sign under ‘We beat everyone’s prices’, you then read ‘We will keep you healthy’.

So, what values is the pharmacy speaking to the patient now? Is it price and health? Is it price over health?

The thing about values is that they are hierarchical. There is an order, that when tested, we will always pick one value over another.

Unfortunately though, many pharmacies and those that work in them don’t understand their values to begin with, let alone the order they are prioritised in.

As a result, how can you effectively define how you are perceived if you don’t know and therefore cannot effectively demonstrate what you stand for?

The pharmacies that understand their values and clearly market them and demonstrate them are the ones that are defining how they are perceived.

They understand what their target market is and go for it without question and hesitation.

For example, those pharmacies that value price as their number one value and clearly market this are leading the way to define the perception of ‘cheap’.

Others that just stock and retail products are being defined by the labels and perceptions that marketers are now dictating – also known as ‘good’ pharmacies as described earlier.

The combination, however, is ultimately leading to what is now being termed as retailpharmacy.

But those that clearly define and market themselves as retail pharmacies own this. They know what they stand for and, as a result, have effectively created this third definition of pharmacy.

However, it’s those pharmacies that are unclear on their values, unsure of how they need to be perceived and who are trying to imitate the values of others that are being left behind, lost in-between the traditional health-solution-focused definition of a community pharmacy and the emerging definition of a retail pharmacy.

Unfortunately, it’s these pharmacies, through their convoluted messaging, that are ultimately shifting the perception of the industry and diluting the values of a healthcare provider.

Because let’s be honest, you can’t be everything to everyone. Values don’t work that way.

And trying to be everything to everyone is coming at a cost.

Those that are trying are failing. They are losing or have already lost their identity.

And the patients that once valued them for what they clearly stood for – whether it was holistic health solutions, community engagement or anything other than just being ‘good’ – are finding other pharmacies that align clearly to their values.

So how do you define yourself as something other than ‘good’?

  1. Take ownership and accountability of what you are defined and perceived as.
  2. Define your values.
  3. Identify the values of your target market (not your current market, but who you truly want to care for) and remember that you can’t be everything to everyone.
  4. Communicate through your values.
  5. Build a loyal fan base.

But most importantly, demonstrate your values and use them to guide what you say ‘yes’ to, but also what you say ‘no’ to.

Do this, and you will take ownership and control of not just being ‘good’ but truly unique and amazing.

You will stand out from the crowd.

You will define how you are perceived.

About The Author

Zamil Solanki works with healthpreneurs — from individuals to large multinational organisations — to help them overcome unique challenges and achieve their goals through curated training programs and tailored holistic solutions. Unlike other coaches and consultants, we pair global research and techniques with our own experiences, having grown our own pharmacy by $4 million and exiting it for 3x the industry average multiple.

To do this, we focus holistically, using five key pillars: mindset, planning, leadership, marketing and sales and specialising in workflow, innovation, automation and systems.

Zamil Solanki
Pharmacist, Business Strategist & Entrepreneurial Coach

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