Lessons from @IntuitiveSurg – Three Ways to Build a Consumer Brand Without DTC Advertising

Robotic surgery has great consumer appeal. But it wasn’t always that way, and patients definitely prefer one brand – Intuitive Surgical’s DaVinci robot. Consumer preference helps drives system sales and ongoing device usage. We can learn a lot from Intuitive.

“Build it and they will come” doesn’t work when it comes to new medical procedures. For patients, unfamiliarity and unawareness breeds anxiety. Patients don’t come, and many companies experience slower-than-planned early revenue growth (aka the valley of death).

Treating and referring physicians have precious little time to explain new procedures during typical office visits. So most medical device companies create patient brochures for physicians to hand out, posters and videos for providers to display, and patient-friendly websites for additional research. Then they hope for the best.

Big pharma, on the other hand, goes big with Direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising. Who doesn’t know the Nexium purple pill for heartburn? Valeant and Astra-Zeneca even advertised during the 2016 SuperBowl. Pharma experience makes one thing abundantly clear: a strong consumer brand can really drive prescriptions and brand preference. Yet for most medical device companies, DTC is simply out of reach.

That didn’t stop Intuitive and its DaVinci robotic surgical system. So how have they built the DaVinci brand?

Intuitive teaches their customers (hospitals) to build the DaVinci brand. Intuitive provides a playbook for their customers to promote the DaVinci robot to consumers, and Intuitive guides them to follow it. It’s an “Indirect-to-consumer” strategy, that works for the hospital and for Intuitive. The incentives are perfectly aligned, and Intuitive replicates their local-hospital-to-local-consumer-outreach model, customer by customer.

First, Intuitive teaches their hospital customers to drive local news. Drive press when the robot is first acquired. Drive press when a new robotic procedure is performed. Drive press when a newer generation robot is acquired. Local news organizations are hungry for stories. The more local the better – why promote your hospital to people who live too far away? The hospital spokesperson might be local chief of urology, or the local chief of surgery – someone who has excellent credibility in the community. Over time, the news stream helps the DaVinci local-consumer brand go from unfamiliar to familiar to preferred. Take a look at a few local stories across the US:  MichiganIdahoChicagoWisconsinVancouver, WAChicago metroMiami, and Tampa.

Second, Intuitive partners with their hospital customers to showcase the DaVinci system at local malls or community events. Nothing demystifies a new technology like getting your hands on it (at least in this pre-virtual-reality era). It’s why Apple created the Apple Store. At the mall, the local hospital tech shows off the robot, and the local physician speaks about it. It’s like politicians pressing the flesh to get votes. You gotta get out there if you want to win. And it’s double the win when the event drives news, like in these cities: PittsburghColoradoNew York StateBowling Green, KY, and Topeka.

Third, Intuitive teaches their hospitals how to advertise their robotic surgery services, locally. A 2012 article describes how Southwest General in Ohio developed a promotional campaign integrating “print, radio, digital advertising, and social media.”

Here’s an excerpt:

“The ability to provide the message in multiple media outlets amplifies the understanding and interest level by potential customers,” says Albert Matyas, vice president of marketing and business development for Southwest General. “It is really about educating the public about the new technology so they can gain a better understanding and discuss it with their caregiver.”

Southwest General also uses physician-based community presentations to provide a personal Q&A for potential patients.

Marketers have found that the community discussions are most likely to result in conversions to procedures because they give the patient a more complete understanding of the technology and the message is delivered on a more personal level.

And as part of its minimally invasive promotion, PRMC conducted three demonstrations of its daVinci robot: on site at the medical center, at a health fair, and at a nearby minor league ball park. At the events, promoters handed out literature and referred interested people to local physicians in its Peninsula Institute for Laparoscopic and Robotic Surgery (PILARS) program.

While these three approaches may sound simple, there are a ton of behind-the-scenes logistics that have to go right for brand-building success, and hospitals are not generally set up for this. Via its DaVinciSurgeryCommunity website, Intuitive has standardized practices, down to the signage at events, the language used by spokespeople to describe the procedure, the pitch to news organizations, the annual media plan for hospitals, and everything else a hospital needs to be successful. Intuitive’s “Procedure Marketing and Marketing Communications teams”  help drive the process. And voila, a brand is built.

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