Tropes about the mythical matriarch mom no longer hold power in the social-media era

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You’ve seen them plenty of times before: ads featuring and aimed at the mythical “perfect mother,” a superhuman creature who not only oversees meals, household chores and social calendars, but also the entirety of her family’s health and well-being. It’s a trope that has been used to sell everything from paper towels to over-the-counter products — and historically, it has generated exceedingly strong results.

So perhaps it might come as a surprise that, as new prescription drugs for a range of women’s conditions come to market, health marketers have tweaked their brand playbooks. They have widened the scope of their thinking to accommodate the many identities that women have outside of “the perfect mother” — or even motherhood in general.

Among the influx of medications used to improve the physical and emotional lives of women are two libido drugs: Addyi, from Sprout Pharmaceuticals, and Vyleesi, from Amag Pharmaceuticals. As the focus shifts away from women-as-matriarch-moms to women-as-human-beings, advertisers have adjusted their approach to prioritize authentic interaction over one-way communication.

According to Meghan Rivera, Amag’s VP and head of women’s health sales and marketing, the company’s approach to marketing Vyleesi represents a departure from past practices. “We’ve not started with a traditional playbook with Vyleesi, but rather with an understanding of our consumer — what she feels, what she most values and what resonates with her,” Rivera writes in response to emailed questions. “We are leveraging social influencers and custom content collaborations with lifestyle publications — similar to OTC brands — in order to ensure we are able to engage women and ensure they are aware of the condition [hypoactive sexual desire disorder] and their options.”

Increasingly, Amag’s approach is becoming the industry standard for marketing efforts aimed at women. Kathy Delaney, global CCO at Publicis Health, has long railed against what she calls “the mom trope,” which reduces women to a stereotypical series of traits — nurturing and self-sacrificing, defined predominantly by their status as wives and mothers. That’s why she believes the new era of woman-focused Rx advertising must acknowledge the experiences of actual women, rather than falling back on the trope they’ve been fed for so long.

“There’s been a big shift in how we talk about healthcare, and it’s gone from something that was very paternalistic to something that’s way more of a partnership,” she explains.

This increased emphasis on partnership means that health brands must cultivate a real understanding of patients — where they live, their socioeconomic status, their cultural DNA — in order to reach them. “There used to be a lot of talk about ‘what disease does the patient have?’” Delaney continues. “That’s been shifting to ‘what patient does the disease have?’”

Still, Rx efforts face hurdles that OTC ones don’t. Amy Inzanti, group SVP of strategy, research and insights at Marina Maher Communications, points out that obtaining a prescription requires a whole different level of commitment — usually in the form of an actual trip to the doctor’s office — than OTC products do. “The journey is much more complex,” she notes.

Thus, when attempting to address any sort of women’s health issue, be it breast cancer or painful sex, marketers need to consider the demographic traits of the individual as well as her mindset. “There is a particular message for a particular person, and only that message hitting that person when she’s receptive to hearing it is it going to work,” Inzanti adds.

Clearly, approaches that lean on social media and relationships with digital influencers allow brands an advanced level of precision. But when dealing with stigmatized conditions such as incontinence, leveraging the right influencers becomes an even knottier challenge.

There is a particular message for a particular person, and only that message hitting that person when she’s receptive to hearing it is it going to work.

Amy Inzanti, Marina Maher Communications
“Is it the beautiful celebrity who needs to tell me that incontinence is OK and that it’s prevalent and all women have it? Or is it my best friend who needs to say, ‘Hey, you know what, we all got it after we had babies’?” Inzanti asks.

For Amag, this means working to incorporate novel techniques such as voice-activated search and virtual medicine, while simultaneously working to “destigmatize and elevate the conversation around women’s sexual health,” Rivera says. “We are seeing incredible engagement among women who are willing to open up and discuss their experiences in social channels. We believe this will lead to them feeling empowered to seek treatment they need and deserve.”

A significant part of this destigmatization push ties back to the notion of authenticity, according to GCI Health CEO Wendy Lund. She points to a campaign in which GCI created the Fibrocenter Facebook page and website for fibromyalgia patients (“an under-recognized area that nobody really wanted to talk about,” Lund says), with the hope that the page would generate 5,000 “likes” over the course of a year. Instead, it received 20,000. Within three years, that sum had risen to 185,000.

“Women want to express themselves, but they don’t have an avenue to do that,” she says. “If you can create those opportunities for them to express themselves, and it’s not one-sided, the company’s going to be much more successful.”

By the same token, consumers have become attuned to efforts in which “authenticity” is manufactured. Delaney refers to an instance in which this faux-credibility backfired on an Instagram influencer touting a branded website for ulcerative colitis — a condition the influencer ultimately admitted she didn’t have.

“She was just skewered by the community that actually had this condition,” Delaney says. The post was immediately deleted.

It was clear to those patients that the influencer was getting paid to tout a product without having any firsthand understanding of the disease or its attendant difficulties. “We have to be extra, extra cautious to make sure we’re real and that we’re using real people and real stories and real truth to engage with what’s out there,” Delaney cautions.

Successful marketers understand that the days of one-way communication about women’s health have likely come to a close. “Throwing information at women and not allowing them to really ask questions or talk about it — that’s not the most effective way to work with women,” says Lund.

Which isn’t to say that doing so is as simple as flipping a switch and immediately embracing the new reality. For Amag, which launched Vyleesi on September 1, it was a gradual process.

“One of the benefits of a digitally focused go-to-market approach is the ability to measure and optimize, as well as to pilot initiatives and scale up or pull back quickly,” Rivera notes. “We’re confident in our launch strategy but remain nimble to ensure we are able to respond to customer behaviors and feedback.”

Asked how she sees this partner-with-the-patient approach evolving going forward, Delaney doesn’t mince words: “I see it devolving if it doesn’t go forward,” she responds. “People are done with things that feel manufactured and fake and coming from on high. Brands have to strip that artifice away and get real if they’re going to survive in where we are as a culture.”