Smart Pharma Reaches the Underserved

Cross-cultural marketing expert Lisa Valtierra is pushing for pharmaceutical companies to be more intentional about the populations they engage

Lisa Valtierra, cross-cultural marketing leader in pharmaceuticals. Photo: Sec Paulino
Lisa Valtierra, cross-cultural marketing leader in pharmaceuticals. Photo by Sec Paulino.

The pharmaceutical industry may seem like an unlikely outlet for advocating for the health needs of disadvantaged Latino communities, but Lisa Valtierra sets out to do just that. She’s the cross cultural marketing director of a major pharmaceutical company where her work touches on both health disparities and representation. She previously worked with AIDS Service Organizations (ASO) as a patient advocate for women with HIV and other underrepresented communities. During that time, she saw conditions so dismal for underserved populations, it was easy to assume the larger industry would be no better.

“One of the major reasons I moved into pharma is because I saw so few companies being intentional about reaching the Latino population, which has been completely underserved despite the changing demographics of this country,” Valtierra says. “When I was a patient advocate, it wasn’t just about not having educational materials in Spanish—and we didn’t, but there was no understanding of cultural differences, health literacy wasn’t taken into account, the list was endless.”

This is not to say that the pharmaceutical industry is succeeding in a general sense at reaching disadvantaged communities of color. Valtierra is very honest about the industry’s shortcomings, admitting that no company in the industry can “claim anything close to excellence.” Much like the business case for diversity, corporations are beginning to embrace with the understanding that a diverse workforce is good for business, change has to come from the top. That requires buy-in.

“Unless shareholders and CEOs are on board, the same people who have historically not been marketed to will continue to be left out, and that means they won’t know about medications that can help them. From a business perspective, working to reach the underserved isn’t just the right thing to do; it’s the smart thing to do,” Valtierra says.

According to US Census Bureau, the number of Hispanics in the US will rise to 128.8 million by 2060, making Hispanics 31 percent of the total population. With these numbers come real buying power, but there continues to be a great deal of apprehension when it comes to marketing to Latinos, especially in the pharmaceutical space.

Valtierra is quick to point out how few people of color actually appear in commercials for new medications, let alone have commercials that speak to their culture. Part of the problem, she says, is that marketing teams are still predominantly white and don’t understand Latino culture or how to reach Latino consumers. There’s also something more troublesome at work.

The marketing director says that many myths about Latinos have been embraced as fact, including the belief that Latinos are largely uninsured, thus making marketing medications to them a useless endeavor. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2014, just 17 percent of US-born Hispanics were without health insurance. The Affordable Care Act has also proven to be helpful to millions of Latinos.

“Making assumptions based on ethnicity that denies millions of people access to health information is ridiculous,” the Los Angeles native says. “Latinos are culturally very loyal people. They can see what companies make an effort to reach them and what companies pretend they don’t exist. When this big demographic shift happens and Latinos are one of the biggest segments of the population, maybe that will make companies wake up, but by then it will be too late. Brand allegiances will have been made to companies that engaged their community. A lot of companies are going to see the marketing numbers and realize what a big mistake they made.”

Valtierra sees the Hispanic market as having untapped potential, and offering nothing but opportunity for growth. She’s particularly interested in taking advantage of how people consume new media on smartphones, tablets, and other gadgets. For too long, she says, pharmaceutical companies have failed to delve into how people access information, what kind of information they want, and how they want it delivered. “We’ve been saying: This is what I want you to know and this is how I’m going to tell you’ instead of: What do you want to know?” Valtierra explains.

Broadly, pharmaceutical companies have a lot of work to do when it comes to reaching Hispanic consumers, but in her daily work, Valtierra believes a lot can be accomplished by listening and urging marketing teams to be more culturally aware and nuanced. She urges her team to question who they are talking to when they’re mapping out marketing campaigns because – as she says – she is both “personally and professionally tired” of a whole segment of the population being dismissed and made to feel invisible.

Valtierra understands the complexity of her position. She is a woman of color in a predominantly white field, but her upbringing by Mexican parents in the chiefly Latino city of Los Angeles gives her an advantage in the multicultural marketing space that many of her colleagues and competitors don’t have. Helping her community have increased access to health information and life-saving medications is work she finds meaningful on many different levels.

“I love to disrupt ideas of what people think about us or how they think we should operate,” Valtierra says. “That is the real fuel for why I do this. This work can be exhausting and it’s infuriating to have the same conversations over and over again. Latinos have historically had less, but we’re not less anymore, and I’m not going to allow an entire industry to pretend we don’t exist. Not on my watch.”