June 8, 2023

Why Fighting Cancer Requires Creativity. Observations from ASCO 2023

There is nothing more humbling for a marketer than walking through the convention floor of ASCO 2023.  You’re surrounded by some of the world’s most brilliant minds, fighting one of humanity’s greatest scourges, cancer. It is incredibly inspiring to see so many advances being made on so many fronts in this war. You see treatments and diagnostics evolving from one size fits all to ever more personalized and precise.

But as a marketer, it’s also concerning to see these amazing breakthroughs struggling to stand out. For too many brands, their booths were a sea of sameness; earnest pictures of dedicated scientists, resolute patients and their caregivers, pipelines full of potential, and the endless, endless, endless strands of bright, colorful DNA. Over the days I toured the convention floor, I walked over to a brand’s booth only to realize a few minutes into the experience that I had already been there earlier in the day. The research was compelling, the pipeline was impressive, but the brand so generic that I didn’t even remember or recognize that I had already been there a few hours earlier.

This is a problem because right now oncologists are facing an onslaught of new treatments and diagnostics with hundreds of brands vying for their attention every year. It’s a problem because as oncology treatments become more targeted and personalized, the frequency with which oncologists have an opportunity to utilize these new treatments stretches from monthly to quarterly to annually. And all of those amazing treatment breakthroughs need to be remembered, or at least recognized many, many months after the initial display. 

A unique, creative booth isn’t going to convince any oncologist to switch treatments. Oncology, unlike any other marketing category, is a high-involvement choice for both HCPs and their patients; it’s always a calculated decision. We’re not selling Cheetos here. But what creativity can do is draw attention, in a distinctive way, so that many months later, when oncologists have an opportunity to engage with this rare oncology area, that email they see won’t be from a brand they don’t recognize, but a brand they remember, from a booth they remember. And when you get a piece of communication from a brand you recognize you’re more likely to open it. More likely to consider it. And when that happens, the maddening amount of time it takes for a new breakthrough treatment to thread its way through the medical system is reduced.

Think of great conference booths as exhibits in an art gallery. The ones that draw your attention use scale, surprise and simplicity to grab your attention and leave an imprint. I loved AstraZeneca’s huge 3D video of waves crashing over the exhibit floor, only to reveal different colored sentinels for each of their oncology brands. GSK’s giant oversized goldfish in a bowl made their point that “one size does not fit all” when it comes to myelofibrosis. Or MorphoSys’s giant number “5” made up of its logo, to communicate their five-year analysis data.

And this isn’t just a game for the big brands. Small brands can also use creativity to punch above their weight. I asked the folks at the Pear Bio booth why they were handing out cuddly bears. Their answer was “Bear rhymes with Pear, so it makes us easier to remember.” I hope after they win their Nobel Prize for medicine, someone gives them a Cannes Lion for creative effectiveness. Along with characters and surprising visuals, nothing is as memorable as a simple rhyme. Pear Bio brought all three to ASCO!

But more than just attention grabbing, these exhibits will show their worth by making follow-up communications easier to recognize and recall. To be effective reminders, marketers need to be disciplined stewards of the brand and forget stressing about creative wear out. In oncology, the key issue is reducing the information overload. Focus on using congresses to build up distinctive brand assets and deploying those assets in every personalized, data-driven, follow-up omnichannel communication. Think of your brand assets, not as things that drive meaningful differentiation, but instead, as levers to ensure distinction. Before you can be convinced, you need to be remembered, and this is where creativity can be a friend to the war on cancer.

In oncology, marketing does not convince, but it can remind. In the war against cancer, that is no small victory.