Muzeable Thinking

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Self Medication and the Myth of Homo-Pharmaceuticus

Posted by on Mar 15th, 2015 in muzeable thinking | 0 comments

Muzeable Thinking No. 16 – posted by Tim Brooks 15th March 2015

Welcome to one of our occasional missives – occasional cos we’re conscious of another myth – that if you can say it, you should! Silence is golden in most cases, a fact that the internet seems increasingly oblivious to. Apologies in advance for our inevitable contribution to the triumph of quantity over quality!

Context: Healthcare & the Myth of Homo-Pharmaceuticus™[1] is the title of a presentation that I [Tim Brooks] gave on 12th February 2015 at The Smart Conference in Birmingham, UK. Its origins are in some consultancy work Muzeable is doing with the Proprietary Association of GB [PAGB] examining how we might make OTC packaging work better for people/shoppers. The conference itself is run by Communications International Group [CIG] the largest/most experienced publisher in the UK pharmacy arena [Pharmacy Magazine/P3 etc]. It is a well-established event with a fab awards ceremony attached. This year’s theme was ‘OTC Medicines: Protecting Your Brand’

Tim Brooks presenting Smart Conference Feb 12 2015 1

Homo-economicus or ‘economic man’ is the mythical creature that inhabits the labyrinth of economic theory. This creature is a super-human who – once given the relevant facts and technical information about economic decisions – is able to [and will] determine a rational course of action to his or her benefit etc. Sound plausible to you?

I have bastardised this for the world of self-care. Homo-pharmaceuticus is equally omniscient and just as mythical. A super-person who combines the enquiring technical intellect of Marie Curie, with an encyclopaedic appreciation of medicine – a veritable walking WebMD – and all this neatly packaged alongside a conscious attitude to safety reminiscent of 80s/90s Volvo advertising. This creature combines these attributes to make a set of rational, well considered, consistent decisions about their and their families self-medication needs… they see the word guaifenesin on the front of a pack and then just need to remind themselves on the right dosage? Plausible eh?

Reality is that we and the people we are asking to self-medicate are all cut from a different cloth. We are homo-sapiens… real people; emotional, irrational and flawed… often in nice ways, but flawed.

Yet, the over-riding approach; the regulation we produce; the rhetoric of many [not all] HCPs, academics/experts and even some of the efforts of brands all seem to be targeted at persuading this mythical creature towards a set of unrealistic goals. If we are ever to make self-medication and self-care really work we must RADICALLY change this. We must acknowledge that this is not a risk free journey, but the move from PATERNALISM to EMPOWERMENT will never be without complications. We must discuss the risks and benefits, but the ethical debate will fast become irrelevant in the face of the potential for future meltdown; a system atrophy driven by aging populations and increasing costs. All made worse by an institutionalised inability to effectively leverage new technologies that could facilitate better self-care by blending service and product in ways that fit lifestyles and needs.

30 years of consumer marketing has taught me many things… the first among equals is that although people may not be in the image of Homo-Pharmaceuticus… they are not stupid. Let’s trust them a bit more and a bit more often.

The problem is that the answer will not be found in the usual preferred route – education [obviously it has a role] but teaching or training people to be more rational [in often emotional situations] is a foolish and Herculean task. We’ve already tried. If I hear another academic or medic explaining how we need to educate people to eat properly and exercise more… humph! They know they should already; it’s their behaviour they can’t change.

We are slowly entering an age of increased behavioural understanding. Behavioural economics is not THE sole answer to any question, but it is a huge improvement on some of the specious approaches of the past. It will not create a complete picture of prescient clarity, but a blurred abstract image with gaps. A better picture nonetheless.

This blurry image – ultimately a bad ‘selfie’ designed to magnify our flawed human behaviour[2] – must start to shape our collective response to change. ALL REGULATION must start with people and their needs; their actual behaviours and the realities of influencing them. Of course, we must ensure that safety is built into this, but we must also acknowledge that – as Albert Einstein said, ‘Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results.’

This should change the key stakeholders from rule makers and sales people to a population of ‘Choice Architects’[3] – where the role of brands, retailers and self-care providers is to work to create environments that facilitate better behaviours. This is the antithesis of educating or persuading us to behave better – and will be very hard to do. For OTCs this means leaving behind the models of the past [let’s face it, they are proven to deliver snail-like/no growth!]. Central to this is for Consumer Healthcare companies to stop thinking they are CPG companies selling everyday products in boxes – the transactional problem/solution approach – and start thinking about building service/technology that wraps around the product to add value/differentiate. This could be as simple as an app or mobile/web interaction or input or some communications that leads to conscious engagement.

This demands a world where we really, really, REALLY put PEOPLE AT THE HEART of our approach. Currently, the only stakeholders in the room with the expertise and motivation to really understand people [not the ‘public’ whatever that government euphemism means] are the brand owners and retailers. Their evidence base goes way beyond the level understanding of regulators and academics and yet… it is ignored. It is seen as inadmissible evidence. The belief is that it is produced to an agenda, to get the ‘right’ answer etc.

This is a fallacy. Manufacturers and retailers do not spend BILLIONS of £$€ on research and the industry isn’t developing more and more robust and validated methods in order to work out how to trick people… it is all done to find truth and insight. Yes, for competitive advantage, but truth none-the less.

The first real world lesson you learn as a fresh faced brand manager is that even though you think your new idea is fab… the likelihood is the consumer will reject it or not need it or not get why it matters or not be willing to pay what you need to make a profit. I can think of NO SUSTAINABLE examples of brands persuading people to stick with poor products that do not safely meet their needs.

So what to do?

  • Regulators must embrace PEOPLE CENTRIC REGULATION. This will demand a radical shift in their attitudes to names, brands/brand owners, language and communication… but not truth! If it isn’t true no-one should be allowed to say it, if it’s true – brands should be able to say it, even ‘own’ it. In fact it would help if we had more points of difference in the market to help people navigate. People make decisions about brands vs own label long before they get to a shelf and make a product choice… don’t emasculate brands to create a mythical level playing field as it ultimately emasculates the category as a whole. Who else is going to invest in and drive growth – in this instance we mean more self-medication. It seems highly unlikely that generic manufacturers or even retailers will do this – only brands will do it. This lack of category growth will over time limit the desire to invest/innovate… which is in no-one’s interest!
  • We must acknowledge that robust consumer data is as valid as any ‘clinical’ input. We must begin to write up robust research in peer reviewed journals to build our evidence base. There is much mediocre clinical data that receives more credence than superbly constructed consumer research… this must be driven by academic arrogance or self-protection or stupidity! Change this mind-set now.
  • We must understand that the needs of OTCs are ENTIRELY different from the needs of Rx medicines and not regulate them in broadly the same way.
  • Use pharmacy more and more effectively as the first port of call when things are unfamiliar e.g. don’t write on OTC packs – ‘If symptoms persist etc… consult your Doctor.’ Say ‘If symptoms persist in the first instance speak to a pharmacist who can advise you.’ Simple.
  • We must – brands included – really embrace technology and work to understand how it can improve product use and safety/understanding. A service not a problem/solution and transactional mindset. Brands must be allowed to lead this – no-one else will.
  • First test battle… PACKAGING. Design it with SHOPPERS in mind – for navigation; to fit their view of their condition – not indication mumbo jumbo that only experts understand and creates more barriers to use. All the insight and data I’ve seen clearly outlines that people will NEVER buy medicines like they buy ‘baked beans’ and safety is always on their agenda. Trust them a little bit more.

Will this solve our problems? No, but it is the first step on a long journey we have to take – together as an industry – because the alternative is untenable.

Thank you.


[1] NB I know I can’t trade mark this, but I am [currently] claiming to have coined the expression…

[2] In this way it is like most other ‘selfies’!!

[3] Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness by Richard H Thaler and Cass R Sunstein

There is always a ‘next question’… so why didn’t you ask it!

Posted by on Sep 26th, 2014 in muzeable thinking | 0 comments

Muzeable Thinking No. 15 – posted by Tim Brooks 26th September 2014

Theodore Sturgeon [1918-85] was a ground breaking sci-fi writer.

It is hard to believe that one of his most notable works, the novel More Than Human, was written in 1953. But that’s what good sci-fi does; it manages to live outside and beyond its own epoch.

Great brands should aspire to do the same!

He also created the much quoted Sturgeon’s Law. A simple, viscerally true view of the world that states that ‘90% of everything is crap.’ It’s hard to argue with.

Our problem is that ‘everything’ is becoming so VAST.

The digital age has meant that there is exponentially more stuff to drown in, but, and here’s the rub, the law still applies. That means that the 90% is an ever expanding universe of tat, a smorgasbord of gristle, an endless drain on our most valuable commodity – time.

It just sits there using up valuable space in the Cloud.

We plough through it every day on our phones, tablets and PCs in the knowledge that there is great stuff out there – just for us. It is just so damn hard to find without a team of expert researchers at your beck and call!

Every day we produce [though this is already out of date]:

  • 189.2b emails^
  • 500m tweets*
  • WordPress alone has c.1.5m+ blog posts**
  • And 2m blog comments **
  • 144,000 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube#
  • 4.5B likes and 300m photos a day on Facebook ##
  • That’s 2-3 Exabytes of data – as Google’s Eric Schmidt once said, from the dawn of time till 2003 we only produced 5 Exabytes of data in total… now we’re doing that every 2 days. It doesn’t even matter if this is 100% accurate… the point is made! ¬

In this context it is clear that anyone telling you that ‘content is king’ is not to be trusted – even though this epithet has been repeated to the point of being meaningless. Theodore would have laughed out loud.

It is patently obvious that it isn’t. To be fair, most sensible people would agree… engagement might indeed be royalty and meaningful engagement might be even be a pretender to the throne, but content itself is merely tomorrow’s digital chip papers in the gutter-like ether. As 90% of it is crap, it’s even worse than this, because most of it isn’t even consumed or discarded it just gets completely ignored. It’s just THERE!

Don’t get me wrong, this digital ‘everything’ is full of AMAZING stuff, but we have to acknowledge that there are huge challenges in this unsustainable and increasingly ineffective marketing model.

The best digital brains are on to this and the answer is [simplistically] targeting [Big Data et al]. You don’t have to find the content you want… it will find you. I’ll cynically watch this space as this will be driven by technology ‘creating’ one possible view of what you want based on some of your previous behaviour it knows about. In the meantime most brands and businesses – especially SMEs are on mission to churn out more stuff; comment and opinion. [We are aware of the irony vis a vis our own efforts!] It’s mandatory.

Solutions? The answer might lie in Mr Sturgeon’s second driving principle.

It is even more valuable than his more famous ‘Law’.

Teach yourself to adopt a total commitment to critical thinking and learn to challenge the status quo or the current or entrenched wisdom.

To support this Theodore had a tool. He forced himself to always ‘ASK THE NEXT QUESTION.’

Great leaders do this intuitively, pulling the weakness in a proposal out of the air just as you think you’ve landed it. In contrast most of us seek the quiet life and either accept things when they start to look ‘ok’, or when they re-enforce our own prejudices, or because we just can’t think of the next question.

Sakichi Toyoda and Toyota’s ‘5 Whys’ is the result of a similar rigorous quest for better outputs.

So, start with the mind-set that what you’re doing might be the wrong side of Theodore’s quality line – hard when your enthusiasm for your latest project kicks in – and push yourself to ask the next question. And then the next. And… you’ve got it.

If we all ruthlessly execute Mr S’s second rule – before, during and after you projects and plans see fruition – by the turn of the decade we might have rewritten Sturgeon’s Law… perhaps people will say that… only 86% of everything is crap!


Various digital data sources…





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‘The first blast of the trumpet against the monstrous regiment of mediocrity…’*

Posted by on May 14th, 2014 in muzeable thinking | 0 comments

Muzeable Thinking No. 14 – posted by Tim Brooks 14th May 2013

If you spend any time looking at business performance you quickly realise that most of what we all do is positively average. Worse still, too much of it is actually pretty poor. Sorry.

I have been musing on a couple of notions relating to this. Like many of us I have spent years trying to suck in the best ideas and examples of success, but my cynical side is fast realising this process might be fun/inspiring/personally useful/important, but perhaps a bit of a waste of time in considering the overall quest for growth and working in the real world. Often, it’s like comparing elite athletes with park players – not meaningful, not fair! So what needs examining to start to change this?

1. A lot of business is at best like the Emperor’s new clothes at worst a lie. Leaders package up mediocrity and sell it as future success. They insist on 4% growth when the business can really, really only do 2%. ‘We’re doing badly, now, but wait till next year…’ Sadly, they have to do this. The truth is unpalatable and we all want to keep our jobs. But it means nearly everything starts off on the wrong foot.

2. Business also loves optimists. So, it’s not even a lie, people actually believe what they’re saying!

3. Both these points go right to the heart of the debate on short termism/quarterly results etc. – an institutionalised farce! This has to change… even if only in relation to our internal decisions/discussion!

4. Within this, we all hide behind the inevitability of big, complex forces and say it’s not us it’s the market/category [ see following great article in Strategy & Business ] This is a cheap excuse, since there is growth/success in most/all categories – it’s a lame bit of leadership spin.

5. We constantly look to best practice/case studies from organisation WE have no possible chance of replicating – for reasons too numerous to mention. Unless you have a Steve Jobs and the unique set of forces that coalesced around him – simplistically, look at it, but don’t expect to get too much practical input from looking at an Apple.

6. Maybe, we also need to acknowledge a reality – people only need so much ‘stuff’ so competition makes winners and losers inevitable in any market. All categories will have a mix of performance levels/cyclical performance. Obvious eh!

So, I think we need a step change in business rhetoric. We need to learn to do ‘brutal truth’ without brutality and atrophying negativity. We need to genuinely start to deconstruct how the average company, the average leader and his/her average team actually work and how they can improve. It’s not enough to bludgeon them with reflections on genius, the best… they won’t get it or do it. In fact it might end up being demotivating.
Problem is this is just not very sexy.

*paraphrasing John Knox, not a very pleasant 16th Century misogynist. Look him up!

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