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OTC, POS and on-shelf: The challenges and opportunities for consumer healthcare

Getting a product onto a buyer’s shopping list is easy. Getting them to purchase your brand? That’s the hard part. A beautiful brand story doesn’t always correlate with an over-the-counter, point of sale presence that generates business.

Consumers only consider packaging in the last ten seconds before they commit to a purchase, for an average of three seconds. If your design fails, they move quickly on to one of the 40,000 other packs in the average supermarket. Even packs outside your category are rivals in this sense, as they can distract consumers and induce them to purchase outside their plans.

Retail brands know this only too well, and a glance at supermarket shelves reveal the attention to detail utilised to stand out. In consumer healthcare, brands are playing catch up.

Design is crucial in winning this battle at the point of sale, even for a product that’s mired in regulations about the claims and choices its designers can make. The key is to make packaging which encapsulates the brand’s story and values, as developed elsewhere in the marketing, and bringing it all back to mind within those three vital seconds.

OTC medicines – a particular challenge

Within the OTC category, packaging potential is limited by the extensive regulations which apply to over-the-counter medicines. Labels must be clear, for easy identification by healthcare professionals and patients; tamper-evident and childproofing features have to be present for many products; and product codes, serial numbers, batch numbers and expiry dates all have to be visible.

Some products, such as paracetamol or codeine, are required to include statutory warnings or follow specific rules about packaging design, intended to minimise the risk of accidents or addiction. These rules restrict the copy claims that can be made, the emphasis that can be placed on them through colour, size and font choices, and the amount of ‘superfluous information’ that can be included on-pack.

Brands which contravene these rules – by making claims that their product is ‘targeted’ or ‘extra strong’ – can encounter consumer complaints, legal consequences, and corresponding damage to the brand. Just ask Nurofen.

Techniques like product events, special edition packaging and premium variants are all valid, but they must work alongside a highly developed brand narrative and experience – not crowding out core brand values built via marketing.

Modernity and brand value – the elephant in the room?

Pharmaceutical businesses have typically relied on their products and patents to make sales, establishing a presence in categories through intellectual property. As a result, these pharmaceutical brands often have a short shelf life compared to other FMCG lines.

The product endures – aspirin has never really gone off-trend – but the brand often fails to adapt, moving into a spiral of decline or stagnation. A long-term customer base is created – think Beecham’s Powders for cold relief – but growth is limited.

The involvement of a third party – pharmacists making recommendations to patients, or doctors issuing prescriptions – further complicates marketing efforts within the pharmaceutical sector. As a result, marketing activity has historically focused on reaching pharmacists and obeying the regulations, centring on the product and its technical attributes rather than on brand, values and narrative.

Failing to build a brand in this way is a mistake. Heritage – the good name of a product and its known efficacy – can’t carry a brand forever.

To grow, and sustain growth, pharmaceutical and health brands have to present themselves as modern and relevant without losing the heritage they’ve built from their existing efforts. At Millennial 20/20 in New York, we hosted a panel exploring the future of heritage brands. It was there that Francesco Tortora, Global Brand Director for Gillette, described his brand as “a 115-year-old startup” – an approach which emphasises the need for the brand to reinvent its values rather than pushing yet another new razor. It’s this outlook that consumer health brands need to adopt to stay relevant.

The store shelves are a brand battlefield. Product specs aren’t enough to win attention: marketing has to win hearts and minds through a brand story. At the point of sale, the packaging has to cement that story, draw on that marketing, and win the battle for consumer attention by calling it all to mind with that first three-second impression. Our work with Pollenase does exactly that – no claims, no technicalities, just a clear, visually refreshing design that follows the rules and catches the eye.

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