Candy to catheters…and the challenges of selling and marketing

Prior to working in the health care industry, I negotiated contracts in foodservice. In both industries, my job roles focused on purchasing contracting. But I also always saw myself in close liaison with manufacturer reps working to market and sell their products. To my delight, many reps sought my advice on how they should present themselves to both stakeholders within my contracting organization and buyers at outlets and facilities in the field.

The methods and tools for marketing and selling health care products couldn’t be more different than those used in foodservice. In those earlier foodservice meetings, sales teams often filed into our office conference rooms bearing bags and boxes of mouthwatering salty snacks and sweet confections and proceeded to lay out their generous display (buffet, really). We allowed ourselves more than a bite or two for what we jokingly called “market research”. As we munched on the latest cheesy popped chip or greatest chocolate-caramel-cookie-whatever bar, we dived into the hard business of negotiations. Compared to product representatives in health care, those candy salespeople seemed to have it pretty easy.

The Contracting/Marketing Relationship

In both industries, driving sales growth on contracted products hinged on effective marketing and sales communication followed by smooth product conversions. Admittedly, I spent much of my mental energy on consultative guidance around messaging and marketing. Yes…purchasing managers should be laser-focused on creating buyer-favorable purchasing agreements that generate lots of revenue. But effective marketing can provide the added boost necessary to entice prospects, get traction with new accounts and maintain an engaged customer base. To me, helping manufacturers differentiate themselves and sell successfully to their target markets was as important as contracting!

Manufacturer reps often wanted to get their marketing into the hands of the right people and be able to tweak their sales approach for their wide audience in leadership and supply chain. Communication strategy usually accompanies newly awarded contracts, product rollouts and other major news, so purchasing managers are often an early point of contact for a manufacturer rep. And, in that position, purchasing agents might even find themselves vetting supplier marketing material and passing it on for promotion through various media and events. Successful rollout of hard-sought contracts depends on it! 

The Tools for a Tough Sale

Health care product sales is serious business. Tremendous amounts of research and development go into design and production in a highly regulated industry. It’s extremely important to communicate detailed product attributes accurately. So, with a belief that sticking to the clinical message is best, health care salespeople often resort to presentations and talk tracks that focus on features and data. Typical meeting presentations consist of regurgitating the company business plan and quarterly report, communicating value through product attributes, and defining company success in the most obvious terms of revenue growth or decline. I have great respect for health care companies, the work behind the products and the salespeople who tried to influence our teams with their limited toolbox. But the majority of marketing and sales communication and literature was rarely memorable. 

In those cases where companies or their representatives left lasting impressions, they were more memorable and authentic (thus, more trustworthy) based on a couple of things: 1) their ability to relate to their audience and 2) their ability to convey how clinicians and/or patients really benefitted from their products. Relating to audiences and communicating real benefits can be achieved so effectively through stories!         

I constantly begged supplier reps to share real patient and clinician stories with me, so that I could help them spread the word. I rarely received anything. Marketing collateral and sales presentations most of the time were incredibly formal and dry, void of even occasional anecdotes providing an insider’s glimpse into real clinician and patient experiences. Although lots of hard work and detail went into product literature and documentation, target audiences needed something deeper to really feel connected to companies and their representatives.

Emotional Response and Receptiveness Through Stories

Health care manufacturers and their sales departments constantly strive for higher ground in the competitive marketplace, but sometimes a competitive advantage takes even more than a game changing product or great pricing. Manufacturers often earn market share only after they can build and maintain a foundation of trust with prospects. 

Connecting emotionally with target audiences is key, whether salespeople sell candy or catheters. It’s obvious that marketing and selling health care products is vastly different than marketing and selling snack foods. The candy and snack salespeople could bring positive emotion in sharing their goods…is it possible that health care sales and marketing can make similar, memorable impressions with the right human stories? 

I’ve met dozens of dedicated salespeople and clinical marketing folks who work hard to convey the meaningful attributes of their products and services. But making an emotional connection with prospects and customers is also important. Catheters ain’t candy. But what elicits the emotional response (and interest to explore trialing and buying) with everyone – including clinicians, caregivers and buyers – is the human experience. 

Worrell Communications provides marketing content support to healthcare companies and organizations that want to find and tell better stories, relate more effectively to their markets and achieve their missions. Let us chase down your stories!

Originally Published


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