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10 Truths of OTC No. 3: Technology is a double-edged sword


Truth 3: OTC purveyors face the double-edged sword of technology, both threat and opportunity

Digital technology is one of the most disruptive and productive developments in human history. The pace of change is astonishing. The tricorder, once something out of science fiction, is now at the advanced prototype stage. From hardware processing speed to proliferating social platforms, the implications are profound for all aspects of human life, including healthcare.

Virtually all traditional, non-tech businesses are playing catch up. OTC is no different and possibly worse — many brands still don’t even have effective static websites, let alone other digital innovation and engagement.

Several technologies loom over OTC. The most obvious is the smartphone. Smartphone penetration is approaching 100% in younger consumers aged 18-44 according to Nielsen, and it’s even 68% in the over 65s. Questions remain over their efficacy, but thousands of health smartphone apps are available, from mental health and sleep tracking to Rx medication adherence and dosing.

Morever, smartphones can provide a holistic view of an individual’s health through hubs like Apple Healthkit and Google Fit. What’s really important is the way that these companies can leverage the resulting data. Research is one thing, but Apple and Google are also incredibly consumer-savvy and already have partnerships with medical institutions such as the U.K.’s NHS, health insurance companies and research hospitals. It’s not fanciful to envisage an entirely new model of healthcare, with the patient and healthcare provider communicating directly on a 24/7 basis via their smartphone hub and wearables, then purchasing any relevant products and services online. This could totally bypass most occasions when people venture into drug stores.

Add to that personalized healthcare. Genome sequencing now costs under $1,000, and a person’s genes can be linked with personalized, specific treatment. Currently playing in Rx and hospital medication, privately funded start-ups like Helix are also planning mass-market consumer products. Helix foresees a world where consumers can choose the best painkiller, birth control pill and even fitness routine based on their DNA profile.

This future is not yet here, but it’s most definitely coming. Some day very soon consumers may well ask Siri or Alexa “What should I do for my headache?” And the answer is very unlikely to be “go to a store and buy branded product 'x.'”

What can OTC brands do in response to this? OTC is in the business of self-care, not technology, but smart partnering is vital.

Some businesses are already on the case. GlaxoSmithKline and Propeller Health have a ‘smart inhaler’ for drug adherence that also detects each usage, location and surrounding air quality, giving insights into asthma attack triggers. Sanofi has teamed up with Verily Life Sciences (owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet) for Onduo, a diabetes management platform. It’s not yet known what this will be, but it’s hard to imagine that Sanofi-branded diabetes-relevant products won’t be part of it.

In a world where technology is driving more and more human behaviors, being in the mix is essential. Otherwise, the technology businesses, in partnership with far cheaper generic options, may well beat branded products to it.

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 third 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.

Next week's truth reveals the OTC consumer's true health focus - it's not about getting better; it's about being better in the first place.

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 LinkedIn.


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