Skip to main content

10 Truths of OTC No. 6: Consumers must be at the heart of OTC

Truth 6: Consumers must be at the heart of OTC

Our first five articles talked about understanding big systemic truths – market, economic, technological – as good starting points to create a compelling OTC product journey. But even those insights will be found wanting without also understanding the underlying consumer and cultural truths. OTC businesses and their products need to offer answers to problems and needs states that consumers actually want to have solved, not what they think needs to be solved.

Some of these are physical needs states expressed at a macro level – the wider consumer needscape. This might currently relate to key trends noted in our previous articles, such as ageing and unhealthy lifestyles, with Nielsen saying diabetes sufferes spend 35% more on OTC products than the average person. According to Nicholas Hall, the leading OTC subcategories showing the highest levels of growth reflect this: Vitamin D, probiotics, sleep aids, tonics and cure-alls, nail antifungals and wound healers.

In the future, physical needs states are likely to arise which relate to increasing urbanization in pharmerging markets and the further explosion in technology usage: pollution, stress/anxiety, energy problems, repetitive strain injury, back issues from using smartphones and a focus on child wellbeing as millennials become parents. It's vital to plan ahead now, in order to deliver innovative OTC solutions with a more holistic, natural focus that will appeal to consumers in 2026.

Some businesses are already responding. In the U.S., CVS Health has OTC vending machines at busy locations like airports and train stations to help consumers who simply don’t have time to get to a pharmacy. Omega Pharma bought a traditional pharmacy in North London, transforming it into a live research lab to deliver insights about shopper psychology, the effect of the physical space, perceptions of customers and, no doubt, brand design development for Omega’s own product lines. GSK Consumer Healthcare has Shopper Science and Consumer Sensory Labs in the U.S. and U.K. These ventures have the advantage of testing and directly understanding various solutions to consumer needs.

Approaching new product development from this type of focused consumer-driven insight is at odds with the traditional molecule-first approach. But mapping a physical and behavioral needscape and matching it with a new OTC offer is highly efficient. And it’s a brilliant yardstick by which to prime the R&D and NPD pipeline. Here’s an example, albeit from the Rx industry. The consumer insight is that traditional inhalers are cumbersome to carry, unhygienic and hard to judge dosage. The response? Bloom’s compact inhaler, designed to fit into a wallet. It has no mouthpiece for hygiene, is refillable, airtight and carries six precise doses of medication. Perfect.

The consumer-driven approach doesn’t always mean going back to the drawing board. Quite often it might be about reframing existing products for alternative uses, or for different markets. Beauty companies quite often have the same active formulation marketed as skin whitening in APAC countries, but they position it to even out skin tone and correct dark spots in Western markets. Viagra was a very happy accident indeed – originally mooted for high blood pressure and angina, but better suited to erectile dysfunction.

However it’s done, done it must be: in the 21st century OTC products that don’t fulfil an unmet consumer need are very unlikely to succeed.

Over the last 20 years, DewGibbons + Partners has helped design some of the world’s most iconic and successful OTC brands, resulting in a deep appreciation of the visual and physical cues — and regulatory limitations — in the self-care and OTC marketplace. The need to challenge those cues and limits is becoming far more frequent.

This is the sixth truth in a 10-part series from Sara Jones and Nick Vaus of DewGibbons + Partners, which has worked for the last 20 years to help design iconic and successful OTC brands. The series, “10 Uncomfortable Truths that OTC has to deal with to survive and thrive in the 21st century,” will publish weekly and feature in the DSN Health and Wellness newsletter every week.

The first truth was recognizing there’s a problem in the first place.

The second truth unveiled that OTC medicines are more often in the brand-building business as opposed to the pharmaceutical business.

The third truth spoke to the duality of technology, the pace of technological advances may leave some OTC brands behind even as those same advances are seized as opportunities by new brands.

The fourth truth addressed the evolution of OTC offerings from acute sick-care to preventative health and wellness solutions, mirroring a health system that's becoming more outcomes focused.

The fifth truth tracked the consumer purchase path toward OTC medicines, which more and more is incorporating a digital element.

Next week's truth concerns regulation, and how restrictions on marketing language cannot be an excuse of poor branding.

Sara Jones
Partner and client services director, DewGibbons + Partners
Sara runs DewGibbons + Partners alongside NickVaus, and heads up the client services team, leading branding and communications programmes for household names in OTC and health care. She’s always had a bit of a secret passion for OTC branding. Her Grandma was a pharmacist in London’s West End, leaving her with an abiding curiosity about active ingredients and how medicines work. She’s (in)famous for reading patient information leaflets cover to cover. Email her,
follow her on Twitter or connect on LinkedIn.

Nick Vaus
Partner and creative director, DewGibbons + Partners
As well as running the agency with Sara Jones, Nick leads the studio in providing solutions that are innovative, creative, economic, and effective. Powered by Beautiful Thinking – a unique combination of right and left brain thinking that seamlessly binds together strategy, design and brand communications – he ensures that his clients’ businesses, brands and consumers are at the heart of each and every brief. Email him, follow him on Twitter or connect on Linke
This ad will auto-close in 10 seconds