Why do pharma brands opt for ‘human approach' in branded content as opposed to ‘medical approach' taken in advertising

Hamsini Shivakumar and Kanika Yadav of Leapfrog Strategy Consulting, write that by taking to formats such as rap songs or stand up comedy, pharmaceutical brands are perhaps attempting to channelise positivity back into suffering

Hamsini Shivakumar
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Disease in most cultures is an uncomfortable topic. While the specific culture markers for many diseases like AIDS and Breast Cancer have changed considerably, most diseases still are marred by stigma and prejudice. How do brands participate in the cultural conversation around a disease? We look at branded content by a few pharmaceutical companies to get an idea about the stance adopted by brands in recent times.

Johnson & Johnson India’s “Be The Change | With Vaani Kapoor & Kaam Bhaari”

Released under “Be the Change for TB” initiatives, Johnson & Johnson released this rap anthem on World Tuberculosis Day featuring actress Vaani Kapoor and rapper Kaam Bhari. As visible in the name itself, this anthem focuses on changing how TB is usually perceived. It advocates for early testing and awareness.

The imagery of “fighting back” and “being a warrior” that Kaam Bhari evokes through his lyrics is interesting. The patient-cum-consumer is a hero who fights both the disease and the cultural stigma attached to it. She is visualised as a warrior in white amidst a sea of black germs.

As idiosyncratic as a rap song on TB sounds, the idea translates well into a battle cry of sorts for the youth of today.

Cipla’s “Asthma Ke Liye #InhalersHainSahi”

With a self-proclaimed manifesto to inspire and empower people with Asthma to choose the right treatment (i.e. inhalers), Cipla brings a two and a half minute song penned by Amitabh Bhattacharya. It is composed by Amit Trivedi and sung by both Trivedi and Nikhita Gandhi.

In their advocacy of inhalers, the lyrics of the song evoke feelings of pain and breathlessness. The consumer here is picturised as an empowered patient albeit suffering. While empathising strongly with the pain brought on by Asthmas, the song tries to necessitate inhalers by highlighting their absence! Armoured with an inhaler, the patient can achieve a fulfilling life and live up to her full potential.

Thus, the brand becomes an enabler for the patient whose life until now was hindered by disease.

Breathefreetv, Cipla’s YouTube channel which has uploaded the song advocates for treatments and precautionary measures in very many ways. With almost 25k subscribers and over 400 videos, there is reason to believe that the channel has a good reach, too. Apart from having experts over, the channel often gets celebrities to share their experiences:

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Having a presence on YouTube or other social media platforms such as Facebook or Instagram has enabled brands to experiment with content in bulk. It is perhaps why songs can be made about a topic as serious as TB. In fact, it might be for a song that one stops scrolling and engages with the brand’s post.

Consider, for example, this stand-up piece on World Malaria Day:

GodrejHIT’s “This World Malaria Day, #AsliMachharMaaro”

Disease in this three-minute bit by Suresh Menon is a number that is announced towards the end. The focus too unlike the previous two examples is not on the patient but on the society around. Mosquitoes, the deadly causative agents are drawn into an analogy with unproductive social practices such as gossiping. The analogy does work in terms of showing how a seemingly small and unharmful thing can have far-reaching consequences.

On the whole, ‘Asli Machhar Maaro’ is an endearing bit that tries to participate in the conversation of social evils and diseases but doesn’t quite attain its full impact. It is not to say that stand-up and diseases do not go hand in hand. ‘Shadows’, a special by Daniel Fernandes, that deals with depression and mental illness have been well received in India as well as abroad. Similarly, comedian Nishant Suri too often quips about his struggle with mental illness in his shows. A personal touch or an anecdote, therefore, really brings about a difference when talking about a disease. It introduces the much-required touch of empathy and puts the human back in the centre.


Branded content around diseases favours the ‘human approach’ as opposed to the ‘medical approach’ taken usually by advertising. Here, the figure of a doctor in a white coat is replaced by a courageous and heroic patient. The ‘disease-expert’ nexus is replaced by the ‘disease-patient’ nexus.

The disease is conceptualised as a human experience complete with pain and fightback. It is not simply a medical problem to be solved by medical professionals. It concerns itself with human emotions and struggles as they come while suffering. Thus, even with a machine as its eponymous focus, the lyrics in ‘Inhalers Hain Sahi’ focus on feelings of breathlessness, suffocation, etc.

In the last two years, Covid has not just dominated the news cycle but also touched a majority of people personally. But even as other diseases took a backseat, their danger never receded.

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A disease or a disorder essentially disrupts the picture-perfect life that most brands envision for their consumers. The pain brought on by disease is a major impediment not only to the financial spreadsheet but also to the pleasure-oriented lifestyle. By taking to formats such as rap songs or stand up comedy, pharmaceutical brands are perhaps attempting to channelise positivity back into suffering. Thus, from their point of view, the disease is a challenge that must be overcome to achieve the equilibrium of life and bring it back. And enabled by digital platforms, the brands are enthusiastically charging toward the said equilibrium. They are present, ready with advice, inspiration, assistance and precaution - all in addition to their products, obviously.

The heroic consumer and the human-centric approach give pharma brands an alternative to the medical model of narrativisation and meaning-making. Something for pharma marketers to consider…

Kanika Yadav Leapfrog Strategy Consulting medical approach Hamsini Shivakumar human approach