1st February 2022

How do OTC products disrupt the category while retaining trust?

The world of OTC is awash with oval logos, bland brands, and garish colours. And in a category where everything looks the same, consumers can get tired of looking at it. To create intangible worth, over-the-counter products must disrupt the category and wear their values, writes Mike Foster, founder and creative director, Straight Forward.

If Unilever’s aborted attempt to take over GlaxoSmithKline’s consumer healthcare business tells us anything, it’s that underexploited OTC brands lay ripe for the magic branding brush. The £50bn-plus bid, if successful, would’ve opened the door to high-growth categories; hygiene, functional nutrition, and OTC, where the brand behemoth currently has no footing. The Unilever approach – to keep the effervescence of an acquired brand fizzing, while giving it better distribution – would have been a boost for OTC medicines.

Health is now a mega trend, with everyone more aware of coughs, colds, coronaviruses, and the need to shore up immunity. The wellness drive means consumers are hungry for information: they want wearable technology to track their health and tell them what they need… then they want reliable brands that can help them achieve their goals.

And as consumers demand that healthcare becomes more customer-centric, its branding has a chance to follow, with modern design sensibilities to allow products to stand out in real life as well as on the digital shelf.

This windfall of consumer interest would be well-invested in new products and the evolution of brand design. Emotional resonance is gold dust, with consumers more likely to choose brands they have been given as children or teens. In a category where own-label products cost up to 70% less for the same ingredients, OTC brands could harness better visual shorthand to describe product benefits for consumers feeling at their lowest.

Of course, these are medicinal products that must adhere to restrictions and regulations. OTC brands have a responsibility to provide dosage and risk information to consumers in a way that ordinary consumer goods do not. Consumers may be free to buy off the shelf, but may also need brand guidance on how to use a remedy, who can take it, and how often.

A sudden outpouring of sleek new brand identities could backfire with a loss of consumer trust – there is a balance to be struck between design and responsibility. So can transformation ensure a brand remains friendly, but also reliable and compliant? Proving that OTC brands can give consumers the information and knowledge they want – and need – to make their own choices in a way which is responsible, start-up Betr Remedies is breaking the OTC mould.

Launched in 2021 as a direct-to-consumer brand and now also listed in 2,000 Walmarts, the US brand is disrupting the $30bn marketplace to become the next generation of OTC brand. With remedies from pain- and allergy-relief to hydration and sleep aids, the branding and pack design are a leap forward, using a pastel palette, chunky font and heart logo.

By evolving what it means to be medical, Betr is aiming to cut through the noise in a crowded and stale category. But the brand doesn’t stop there. At its core is purpose; a buy-one, give-one programme, where for every product sold, a one-month supply of medication is donated to someone who can’t afford it. Similarly, Sage Therapeutics, a biopharmaceutical company, and Yona, a healthcare company for people with vaginas, have combined purpose and high-design techniques for traditionally unappealing and low-interest products, to help their brands get ahead.

Power of the omni-shopper

With forward-thinking design, and a keen sense of pharmaceutical responsibility, these brands are attracting forward-looking consumers; audiences who may be entrenched in life-long habits, but just need one reason to make a change.

Turning 40 this year, the oldest Millennials have eclipsed Boomers as the largest US population group and become the next big customer base for the healthcare industry. Not only do these (slightly) younger consumers expect OTC remedies to resemble other well-designed products in their lives; they want them right now.

With the power of choice that shoppers now have on what, where and how to buy, OTC brands need to leverage omnichannel shopping. The omni-shopper spends only seconds looking at the digital shelf, and since OTC are usually distress purchases, both DTC and 15-minunte delivery models represent untapped opportunities for the industry.

According to Salsify’s 2021 Consumer Report, 40% of consumers said product images help them most when deciding to buy online. Increased competition on the digital shelf shows that in order to remain competitive, and create intangible value, OTC brands need to think a lot more like consumer-facing brands – perhaps for the first time ever.

Learning from consumer marketing, within the limits and restrictions of the healthcare sector, is a fine balance to tread. But if OTC brands bring the best of modern branding principles to bear on their established names, they have an opportunity to connect with new consumers by driving more loyalty, and advocacy that lasts for generations.

As published by Advertising Week here.


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