As recently as six years ago, the idea of harnessing a patient’s own immune system to fight cancer sounded as much science fiction as it did high science.

But for Bristol-Myers Squibb, developer of immunotherapy Opdivo, the stakes and science were clear. The drugmaker had a potential blockbuster on its hands, but most people didn’t fully understand the promise behind it.

Enter Ready. Raise. Rise. Following a wealth of national media coverage, the success of the company’s ongoing three-year initiative to get the public up to speed on immuno-oncology  begs the question of whether pharma marketers are missing out on an opportunity to generate awareness via earned media.

BMS debuted Ready. Raise. Rise in 2015, just months after Opdivo’s late-2014 approval for previously treated advanced melanoma. Its overarching message is that it takes a community to fight cancer — and that’s a line the campaign’s A-list spokespeople have reinforced throughout.

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott, the NFL’s 2016 offensive rookie of the year, noted in interviews for the campaign that his mom’s battle with cancer played an integral part in his decision to come onboard as a spokesperson.

“I know how important the love and support of our friends and family were to her,” he said.

Modern Family’s Eric Stonestreet, who has worked on the campaign since its inception, echoed that point. Tia Mowry, best known for her sitcom Sister, Sister, joined the team this year. Prescott and Stonestreet participated in 21 national interviews promoting the campaign, appearing on shows such as Good Morning America and SportsCenter.

 

So what prompted BMS to seek high-profile celebrity spokespeople to help start a nationwide conversation about immuno-oncology? And will there be more of these efforts going forward? To hear experts tell it, earned media can be as much about building awareness as it is creating credibility — but the company’s success may be hard to replicate.

Creating context

Enlisting celebrities thought to be relatable helps bring a complicated topic such as immuno-oncology “down to a level people can understand,” says Bryan Blatstein, lead of the medical specialist group at Chandler Chicco. “A Q&A with Prescott is worth its weight in gold. Earned media allows a celebrity or spokesperson to put the disease state or treatment into context in a way you can’t quite do with paid integration or branded coverage.”

A broad awareness initiative with earned media can improve the impact of a branded campaign down the line, Blatstein adds. By first turning to education about immuno-oncology, marketers slowly build up the knowledge base and prime target audiences for a brand-specific message.

“It lays a nice foundation for a brand campaign to attract more attention,” he explains. “It was a smart approach due to immuno-oncology’s complicated nature.” But what is the right mix? Blatstein says it varies by campaign. However, he notes “70% earned and 30% branded would be a sweet spot.”

The reason marketers should lean more heavily on earned media is that such efforts tend to go beyond simple awareness plays, explains Frank Iorio, managing director of Frontline Oncology. “Earned media is becoming increasingly valuable,” he says. “When people start to share content and interact with that content, that’s when you’re moving forward.”

 

We recognized that people want to engage online, learn about the subject, and show their support for loved ones in different ways

Caitlin Craparo, Bristol-Myers Squibb

 

To further the campaign’s reach, BMS expanded its digital presence this year, says Caitlin Craparo, associate director of public affairs for U.S. immuno-oncology at the company. “We recognized that people want to engage online, learn about the subject, and show their support for loved ones in different ways.”

As part of that effort, BMS introduced gamification elements, giving participants points for registering on the site, learning about it, and raising and sharing a virtual flag. Participating patient groups that receive the most points are featured on the homepage of Ready. Raise. Rise. The organization also donated $1 for every point earned from June 28 to July 31 and distributed those funds to participating groups.

BMS’ attempt to generate awareness for a way of treating cancer, generally rather than about a specific type of cancer, worked in its favor as it attempted to reach a wide range of audiences. Too often, media campaigns focus on a very specific type of cancer, notes Alyssa Bleiberg, a media specialist at BioSector 2. “It’s hard to relate to people when you’re talking about different kinds of cancers. The organization wanted to go big, and Ready. Raise. Rise. is an unbranded campaign with huge celebrities. It definitely had all the right ingredients for a big earned media presence.”

Bleiberg points out that media outlets tend to be more receptive to unbranded efforts. “When you have an unbranded message, it comes off as a little more genuine,” she continues.

At the same time, BMS isn’t the only company developing an immunotherapy — and one could argue the company is no longer the leader. In August 2016, a setback in Opdivo clinical trials in first-line lung cancer paved the way for competitor Merck to come to market first with Keytruda. The concern is that a big initiative to raise awareness for immunotherapies in general could send patients into the arms of a competitor.

However, Iorio doesn’t believe it’s that simple. “General awareness helps everyone,” he notes. “There is plenty of room for multiple players in this type of science.”

 

Managing the message

The clear advantage of earned media is that it creates a sense of authenticity for a company and brand. And yet that advantage can also be its greatest drawback. The media landscape is littered with examples of spokespeople going off message or veering into a topic that might turn off potential audiences.

Bleiberg’s advice for avoiding a disaster? “Relationships are key. It’s the way you conduct the media interview,” she says.

 

Pharma is a complicated space. There are so many things we have to say about a drug, with safety information that some media outlets don’t want to include
Alyssa Bleiberg, Biosector2

 

Even still, she notes there are certain risks that are unavoidable. “You can work hard with a reporter or producer ahead of time, but ultimately that outlet has control,” Bleiberg explains. “We’ve all seen cases where you have a great interview and the story comes out and they turned it into something negative.”

The key to minimizing that is by doing your homework, Bleiberg adds. She says pharma may be headed toward media with paid — rather than earned — integration, especially in and around therapeutic categories with smaller patient populations.

“Pharma is a complicated space,” she explains. “There are so many things we have to say about a drug, with safety information that some media outlets don’t want to include. There will always be earned media, but especially in those niche audiences, we have to be open to a bit more paid [media].”

 

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