Marketing needn’t be a chore and has the power to dramatically enhance the service you provide, says Gavin Birchall


Marketing is a black sheep. It is part of the business administration flock but is often viewed with suspicion because it is misunderstood. That should not be surprising because marketing is a business function that focuses on people and what they feel, think and do.


People are changeable, which introduces unknowns and puts business managers off thinking about marketing. If you are interested in what your pharmacy’s customers, clients, patients and other stakeholders feel, think and do then you need to take the time to understand marketing. With so few people in pharmacy doing it well – if at all – there is a real opportunity to take the competitive advantage by understanding it, harnessing it and executing it as well as you can.


Getting started


Let’s deal with the elephant in the room. Marketing is not like pharmacy. It is not governed by professional standards that are highly regulated or, at least, not to the same extent.


The vast majority of marketers and the companies they work for try their hardest but there are some that have totally missed the point. At best, the latter group twists the truth and at worst deceives to manipulate. Rightly so, this leaves a very bad taste in our mouths. Nobody likes to be deceived.


However, marketing should not be viewed through that negative lens. It is the people behind the marketing that define its effect. It can be used for good and as pharmacists we must focus as individuals, business owners and as a profession on using the marketing process to raise awareness and engagement within society. If people don’t know about what we can do, we can’t blame them for not rushing for our help.


About marketing


Marketing is often the first function to suffer when there is financial pressure. It is notoriously hard to find solid links between activity and sales. Even digital communications channels that offer overwhelming amounts of data struggle to demonstrate this clearly. However, think of it this way. When sales are dropping and costs are rising, competition increases. You compete through your marketing. Let me explain.


Your income comes from your customers, even where NHS income is concerned. Your customers’ patronage triggers a payment by the NHS. The NHS defines the quantum of the payment and your customers decide how many payments there are. Each individual customer decision about where to access pharmaceutical care is what matters.


Marketing is your way to influence that decision and customer satisfaction is the absolute key to your success. Now, that is what those bad marketers are missing. Their deception forgets this key point and ignores the fact that customers spot it every time and that when they do, they are gone for good. Customers, their needs and their satisfaction are at the heart of marketing.


The importance of communication


Communication is important and there is an ongoing proliferation of ways in which we can communicate with our customers. This is great and gives us more options about how we reach out and let people know what we have to offer.


The problem is that many people are now starting with the communications themselves and ignoring the marketing process that precedes them and defines what you are actually trying to tell customers. So many people are busy communicating without really having thought about what it is they want to say and whether their offer actually adds any value for their customers.


Start there.


Think about what your customers need. Ask them about it. Talk to them or carry out surveys. Then think about which specific group of customers might be interested in your offer. For example, if it is a stop smoking service that you want to market, it will be relevant to some and totally irrelevant to others. If you are marketing to a specific group, make sure it is them you ask about how you can help. Listen to them and design your offer around what they say.


Leave no stone unturned


Consider the product or service you offer and how you can make sure it satisfies your customers’ needs as fully as possible. Think about how much that is worth to your customer and what price you could set. Work on how best to get your product or service to your customer. Is it a face-to-face thing, in the pharmacy, outreach or delivery? Can you deliver it online? Which platform results in the highest customer satisfaction?


Talk to your team about how the ways in which they deliver the product or service. The way they interact with customers will have a big impact on satisfaction, so work on defining an approach together. Take a look at the pharmacy’s premises or the digital environment your product or service is delivered from. Don’t miss anything out. Does it give the impression you want it to?


When you have done this, you will have really put some thought into how your offer will add value and deliver customer satisfaction. That is one of our advantages as pharmacists. Our products and services really do add value and we still top the lists of most trusted and valued services in the UK. With all of that on your side, your next step is to plan how to communicate it.


Next steps


Begin with your customers again.


Where do they spend their time? Which communications channels can you effectively reach them through? Make a list and assess each channel. There are many that are free to pharmacists and we are largely in control of:


  • Your team
  • Exterior signage
  • Window displays
  • Interior signage
  • Posters
  • Leaflets
  • Point of sale
  • Open days / events
  • Promotional stands
  • Product range
  • Service range
  • Environment
  • Delivery driver leaflet drops
  • Stakeholder posters / leaflets
  • Press releases
  • Stakeholder visits
  • Pharmacy website
  • Social media
  • Radio appearances
  • Official visits by local MPs, etc
  • Giving talks at local groups
  • Mailing lists


There are many other paid communications channels that you can use to reach your customers too. These include:


  • Paid social media adverts
  • Professional leaflet drops
  • Commercial partnerships
  • Local outreach clinics
  • Local event attendance
  • Print advertisements
  • Digital advertisements
  • Sponsorship
  • Radio adverts
  • TV adverts
  • Out of home adverts


The list is long and only really restricted by your imagination. With a little creative thinking you can develop a structured marketing communications plan which co-ordinates the same messages across multiple channels and really helps you to implement consistently.


When you start communicating, you learn whether you have made the right choices throughout the marketing process. The response will tell you. Build in the most robust metrics you can that allow you to assess the return on your investment through any given channel. For example, Google Analytics can be used to assess how many people visit your pharmacy’s website. Review these regularly and try to analyse which aspect of your marketing you need to develop further.


Marketing is a process, not a task. It is a cyclic process that you will need to continually develop to keep pace with your customers as they change their thoughts, beliefs and behaviors over time.


As a profession, it is essential that pharmacy takes these steps in relation to how we are perceived by society as a whole. We are often unhappy with how we are perceived and how that drives the decisions of our paymasters. Marketing our profession is an important way to influence those paymasters and part of the solution.


Gavin Birchall is a pharmacist, designer and marketer.

He is the author of the Pharmacy Marketing Formulary which explores marketing for pharmacy people in detail and will be available from DOSE Publishing in August 2018.