Go direct, don’t get stuck in the healthcare mire.

Plenty of brands have ‘gone DTC’ in recent years. Countless companies are building direct relationships with their customers, from indy snack companies to sportswear giants—some eagerly, some forced by circumstance. When it comes to consumer healthcare products, it’s a different story.

The benefits are clear and the mechanisms are there. But we’re all aware of a troublesome, underlying truth:

Healthcare shopping is different to every other kind of shopping

And this complicates things, particularly for positioning your brand and marketing your products.

Our behavioural scientists have identified the four problem areas in how consumers shop for healthcare products. (At UNLIMITED, some of us call this the healthcare ‘mire’ – a fitting name, but we do also enjoy a good acronym.) We think their insights could help guide brands looking to make the move to direct selling. And some of our marketing minds have sussed out a few of the opportunities that come baked into a DTC model.

Shopper currencies and the healthcare mire

The first question we face is how to convince shoppers to change their behaviour. Why should a consumer buy your product directly from you, instead of continuing to shop as they have before? What’s in it for them to change their behaviour?

A few years back, Herb Sorensen, Ph.D., introduced us to the idea that there are three ‘currencies’ that shoppers care about: time, money and angst. If you can help them to save a decent amount of any of these currencies, you’re onto a winning strategy. Thankfully, direct-to-consumer retail can help you with all three, so the idea shouldn’t be too hard a sell for consumers—especially as brands in other sectors have got them used to this approach.

Still, the way that consumers are used to shopping for healthcare products could throw up challenges for brand and product marketing. Here are the four main ones our experts identified.

  • Motivation: healthcare shoppers are generally driven by one of two missions: replenishing something they already use, or they’re in distress right now, looking for an immediate treatment. Neither primes them for nuanced marketing and careful purchasing decisions.
  • Infrequency: most consumer health categories don’t involve frequent purchases. As a result, many shoppers can’t even remember which brand they’ve bought before. In effect, your consumer starts a new customer journey each time they shop.
  • Restlessness: building any kind of loyalty can be tricky. Not only is shopping infrequent, your shopper wants the best solution for their condition, and they’re always on the lookout for this. They can be tempted away if they think something better meets their needs.
  • Embarrassment: few people are happy with the idea of others knowing their health issues. So word of mouth recommendations are unlikely and in-store browsing is as a brief as possible. The channels to reach your consumers are narrow.

We can immediately see how DTC could help with embarrassment. Delivering products directly to consumers, in discreet packaging, easily sidesteps this challenge. But what about the others? Infrequent shopping, a restless consumer and tricky shopping motivations. How can DTC help brands to address these?

Infrequency can actually be addressed pretty neatly, through a programmatic approach. If your customer takes daily vitamins, for instance, and they’ve just bought a pack of 90, then a reminder email in 80 days could be a straightforward sale. This healthcare shopping quirk can actually turn from a challenge for over-the-counter sales to an advantage for DTC. Less customer churn, better ROI on customer recruitment, and we’ve used one of the shopper motivations to our advantage: replenishing is now effortless.

Build the relationship

Clearly, the ‘direct’ part of DTC holds the most value for marketers. Once your consumer has made their first purchase, you have the chance to build a relationship with them. If your marketing and communications show your company’s expertise, and speak with empathy to your customer, then you’ll build trust. But there’s also no reason why you can’t address their restlessness too.

If your consumer is already inclined to look at new products, and search for the best option, perhaps you shouldn’t fight this. Instead, you could recommend them. Send suggestions for alternative products in your range—or related ones that might prove helpful. They may have bought nicotine gum before, but patches might be a welcome change. Regular, well managed communication like this could show that there’s no need to look elsewhere.

Turning back to our four challenges, we still have the other half of the motivation conundrum: ‘distressed shoppers’, looking for immediate treatment. There may be no easy way to fix this. But, if you’ve built a strong DTC relationship with your consumer, when it comes to a one-off, over-the-counter purchase there’s a good chance they’ll be looking for your logo.

This article was written by Ivan Browne, Shopper Research Consultant at Walnut Unlimited