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5 Ways Marketing in OTC Differs from FMCG

Written by
Mads Krogh Petersen
5 Ways Marketing in OTC Differs from FMCG


First, consider the challenge of forging emotional ties with consumers. As all of us are painfully aware emotional ties are important because our products’ functional value is typically commoditised.

A decongestant being humourous and keying into the value of respecting yourself

A consumer can build up positive set of emotional associations with FMCG products — either through direct usage or built up with the aid of advertising communications. A Kellogg’s breakfast cereal can conjure up a feeling of family togetherness and rural wholesomeness, a washing powder can convey a sense of achievement in the successful completion of everyday tasks, a hint of mountain freshness in the home and a feeling of family nurturing. FMCG advertising tends to be characterized by the celebration of context, usage rituals and longer-term positive emotional benefits.

Even personal and household cleaning brands are as much about the ritual of cleaning as they are about the end result — foaming agents are added to cleaning products not because they are functionally useful, but because they serve as a mental trigger to the consumer that something is getting cleaned — that the consumer is making good progress in completing an everyday task.

Ariel may be able to help you in ways you never imagined.

FMCG products and therefore FMCG advertising is about making the everyday even better. Dirty dishes may not be a pleasant thing, but FMCG advertising for a dishwashing detergent is able to key into the context of the end of a successful family meal before talking about the benefits of a lemony smell, effective non-greasy results and a sense of a job well done. Dishwashing detergent isn’t advertised as something that corrects a problem, rather it is talked about in the context of improving peoples’ everyday lives.

In contrast, the context of OTC products is crisis rather than making a great everyday life, even better. OTC products don’t solve benign everyday problems; they solve crises (small or large). The benefit of an OTC product is in its ability to stop something out-of-the-ordinary happening — in other words, an OTC’s benefit is purely about the absence of a problem.

How you like this dude?

Communications therefore tend to focus on the single point of relief — that being the only positive part of the story. Context, usage ritual and long-term emotional benefits are generally not practical focus areas for emotional storytelling in OTC advertising as the negative nature of the product (stopping something bad, rather than making something good) doesn’t as readily cater for it. Not that OTC brands are not trying, some succeeding, but the starting point is dramatically different.

Diverting attention away from the crisis to when it is not there

If you are interested in how humans are prone to react subconsciously against anything that signals human imperfection and our mortality, much can be learned from how patients non-adhere to their prescription medicine.

The somehow uneasy co-existence of the crisis and the life you want to live

Second, consider the role of impulse buying. When it comes to FMCG you respond readily to marketing stimuli in store. You succumb to the delicious looks of Cadbury chocolate packaging, the discounted Volume Buy on detergent, or the scent from the in-store bakery, even though you had no pre-c0nceived intent to buy those items. In contrast, if you only suffer from constipation after devouring a full Xmas turkey or too much beef rendang for Hari Raya, it is unlikely you are going to jump on a “Get 2 for 1” offer on laxatives during other times of the year. Of course, there is always the opportunity to key into the fear of not being prepared when the worst happens.

They may not smile much longer unless they stock up

The underlying reason is that most of us luckily only occasionally suffer from headaches, red skin, constipation, allergy, flu, joint pains and similar, whereas there is a constant functional need (e.g. you got to drink every day) or emotional need (e.g. for distraction, entertainment or a feeling of success) to buy and/or consume consumer goods such as milk, peanuts, bread, Coca Cola, toilet paper and loads of chocolate.

Everybody knows the need to push through despite a sore throat and cold. Halls tells us humorously we are everyday heroes and big nosed inspired by wartime sense of resilience

Third, consider the role of pre-purchase research. You are less likely to Google chocolate when feeling peckish than to Google rash when you skin is red, itchy and potentially in the need of a OTC skin lotion. The amount of online searches on symptoms, diseases, conditions is absolutely exorbitant and a testimony to this fact. The searches often lead to self-diagnosis with the help of Dr Google, an intent to buy an OTC product or a decision to consult a doctor for diagnosis and potential prescription of Rx drug.

The underlying cause is obviously we are dealing with a crisis where the cause of the condition should be understood in order to determine the right solution; where an efficacious and fast remedy is essential; and where safety issues are often prevalent in the mind of the consumer.

Fourth, consider the lag between a consumer is exposed to a brand’s push marketing and the time the consumer need arises. On average the lag is longer for Over-The Counter drugs (OTC) than for most Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG). As mentioned previously the underlying reason is that FMCGs are everyday items which cover a need for vital sustenance, address ongoing, basic, everyday human functional needs or cover a positive emotional need in contrast to an OTC where you are trying to prevent, alleviate, treat or cure a condition or disease. This means that top-of mind oriented marketing is potentially even more important for retaining OTC consumers than in FMCG because FMCG consumers are reminded by daily, habitual usage and instore visits as opposed to most users of OTC. OTC brands run seasonal campaigns e.g. allergy brands during the pollen season; skin brands in the dry season; cold medication after the holiday season, etc, in order to reduce the lag.

The long term memory of consumers is improved when they share a common cause with a brand.

Fifth, we are selling medicine directly to consumers! The reason a product is categorised as OTC is because it contains a therapeutic agent. For safety reasons OTC products are heavily regulated, among other things, putting very significant restraint on the way in which marketing messages can (and should!) be crafted. For some countries, every campaign, every message has to be pre-approved by the local health regulatory body. This adds iterations, additional resource requirements and time to all OTC marketing execution deadlines.

No claims about probiotics and the potential positive impact on the immune system — most probably due to regulatory challenges. Actimed is grey area OTC namely a dietary supplement but which has gone FMCG in their Stay Strong campaign.

Several executives in healthcare companies have asked whether they should hire marketing talent from FMCG companies to take their OTC marketing “to the next level”. Many FMCGs companies are surely light years ahead of OTC companies especially within digital and integrated multi channel marketing as well as their approach to creating, value added, long lasting relationships. As a testimony OTC is bottom in terms of Digital Spend in Consumer Packaged Goods.

Much can be gained by adding to those capabilities to the OTC marketing team, but an understanding and experience in the fabric of the Over The Counter buying process as exemplified above remain of critical importance.

There is a face-level deceptive similarity between the fabric of Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) marketing and Over-The-Counter products (OTC) marketing. Here are 5 central points of difference.

Written by

Mads Krogh Petersen

President and Co-Founder

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