What Pharma Can Learn From Lance Armstrong

image Ǭ© 2010 Lance Armstrong Foundation

image Ǭ© 2010 Lance Armstrong Foundation

By DJ Edgerton (@wiltonbound)

If you were to create a time capsule of significant cultural objects from the first decade of the 21st century what would you include? A lot of people would probably opt for a rubber yellow bracelet with the words “Live Strong printed on it. And if someone dug up that capsule fifty years from now Im sure they would still know the meaning of those words.

Thats the power of story. And I would argue that Lance Armstrongs story has done more to raise attention and awareness for cancer research in this country than just about any other event in the past decade. Ditto Michael J. Fox and his battle with Parkinsons disease.

Think its just the power of their celebrity that has brought attention to the diseases they suffer(ed) from? Elton John suffers from epilepsy. Alan Alda is a polio survivor. George Lucas is a diabetic. But theyre not associated with their disease states in the same way that Fox and Armstrong are. And they certainly havent sparked culture-changing movements the way Lance has.

The difference is Armstrong (and Fox) understand the power of story. Yes, Lance Armstrong was a prominent figure in the Cycling world (and in sport in general) and his improbable 1999 win of the Tour De France would have been one of the top stories of the year no matter what. But Lance was smart enough to work with a co-author named Sally Jenkins to write ITS NOT ABOUT THE BIKE. And thats when things really started to take off.

In ITS NOT ABOUT THE BIKE, Armstrong detailed his personal struggles with the disease, the strength he drew from the patient community, and his feeling that his experience had made him part of something greater. His story touched a chord with the American public and the book went on to spend 38 weeks on the NEW YORK TIMES bestseller list. To date, literally millions of copies have been sold and an entire sub-genre of sports writing has built up around this one volume. This one volume was the platform on which Lance built the LIVE STRONG initiative, an organization that would give birth to livestrong.org and those ubiquitous yellow bracelets. Well talk more tomorrow about how Armstrong was able to leverage his story on to the digital platform and create a viral marketing sensation.

But today I wanted to leave you with one point. Walk up to anyone on the street (at least in the US) and theyll be able to tell you who Lance Armstrong is. Theyll be able to tell you about the disease he survived and his remarkable comeback. Theyll even be able to tell you what that “LIVE STONG bracelet stands for. But they wont be able to tell you a single drug that was used in his treatment.

And thats our fault, not Lances. Hes been very open about his treatment and how the care of Dr. Lawrence Einhorn and the regimen of “PVB (cisPlatin, Vinblastine & Bleomycin) saved his life. Why dont we trumpet success stories like this? Advances in pharmacology allowed Armstrong to not just survive but become one of the dominant athletes of his generation. And theyve allowed Michael J. Fox to continue acting. And theyve allowed George Lucas to keep making STAR WARS movies. Ok, maybe we shouldnt take too much pride in that last one but the point is the Pharma industry needs to understand the power of narrative and the way it can transform public perception of a disease state (or even our beleaguered industry).

Look at the way your company communicates with the public about its products and services. When are you going to tell your story?




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