Mapping The True North: The Next 20 Years Of DTC

In the U.S., the practice of marketing medicine directly to consumers (DTC) is turning 20 in just a few months. Its presence and impact have been a lively topic among physicians, advertisers and patients. DTC ads have been skewered on Saturday Night Live, maligned as increasing cost and motivating unnecessary treatment, credited with helping people become aware and get necessary treatment, and ... the AMA would like to see them gone forever. 

Like it or not, we are more health literate today than at any time in history — in part due to DTC and the businesses and content that surround it. It works for pharma, too, and is proven to drive decisions and actions. DTC made it okay to have and seek help for conditions like erectile dysfunction, overactive bladder, vaginal dryness and irritable bowel syndrome, none of which would’ve been considered topics for “polite” conversation 20 years ago.

DTC was born in an era without pervasive digital and without the most disruptive forces in marketing to date — social and mobile. A time when media was all about targeting a segment, whereas now it’s about engaging a person.



Today, we live in the era of IWWIWWIWI (I Want What I Want When I Want It), and mobile allows us to be connected in increasingly effective ways. In the Social Influencer Economy, we now consult the wisdom of the masses in seconds. We are at the edge of sensor proliferation, which will further enhance abilities to be less interruptive and more relevant. 

These modern tools of engagement offer more relevant and desired resources and tailored experiences. When our communications start showing up at more precise moments of need in the places and ways in which individuals prefer, we move from stealing people’s time to truly valuing it.

Consumers don’t buy attributes like safe and effective anymore; we’re savvier today. After all, we expect those attributes to be the price of entry for FDA-approved products. What we do buy as health consumers is a better version of our current state. Looking ahead, this is what we should think about carefully to ensure that our future communications are connected and for consumers and not about us alone. 

The majority of brands have become very good at communicating about their product and about the condition; collectively, however, we fall short on content that is needed because people have a condition or are at risk. We have privacy and bias hurdles to overcome, but digital engagements allow us to move from the current perception of health toward predictive intervention.

The diagnosis of a chronic illness is akin to getting a new full-time job that you will have forever and for which you are clearly and completely unqualified. At that moment, we aren’t likely to get much out of someone selling us a on a brand with “talk to your doctor.” We’re confused at best and paralyzed at worst — and wondering where the closest sandbox is in which we can bury our heads.

In our hyper-connected and incredibly fragmented world, we must better organize the content and experiences that support the truths with which people actually want to engage. We need to coax them out of the sandbox. 

Mapping to True North

Navigationally, The North Star is the thing we always know to be true and consistent and we are therefore able to organize toward it. For brands engaged in DTC, True North is having a more consistent and relevant approach to helping people because they have an illness versus selling them because you make a medicine.

Tomorrow’s medicine will not be competitive if it is limited to a molecule alone. We are forever hyper-connected. Having a North Star that in some way maps back a customer’s better version of their current state is not only better for individual brands, but something the industry should agree upon for the next 20 years of DTC overall. It is a start toward a better version of us as individuals and as brands who provide necessary medicines.

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