Last week, one of my heroes, Paul Farmer, received an extraordinary distinction from Harvard University. Farmer, the Harvard physician-anthropologist whose medical-crusading work in Haiti, Peru and Russia was profiled by author Tracy Kidder in the 2003 bestseller “Mountains Beyond Mountains“, was appointed to a university professorship. Only 23 of Harvard’s 12,000 faculty members hold university professorships, the school’s highest professorial distinction.
It’s the latest in a long line of honors and accolades for Farmer, who has dedicated his life to the belief that people everywhere should have access to quality healthcare. His Boston-based nonprofit, Partners in Health, is now operating in 12 countries. Not bad for a kid from North Adams, Mass. Farmer’s example has lessons for marketers everywhere, too.
Humble beginnings need not deter. Maybe you’re a startup or perhaps you’re entering a new market — unfamiliar surroundings. You don’t go to work in a glitzy building. The entire company could fit inside an SUV. Don’t let that faze you. Farmer’s family sometimes didn’t have a roof over its head, and there were times as a boy that he slept in a tent.
Passion is a powerful marketing tool. You say you don’t have much of a marketing budget? How fervently do you believe in your product or company? As Sean Connery famously said to Kevin Costner in The Untouchables, what are you prepared to do? Your passion just might attract admirers in high places, such as key opinion leaders or lead investors. Farmer’s early work fighting hunger attracted the interest of Boston construction magnate Thomas White, who has given not only his time but more than $30 million to fund Farmer’s projects since the 1980s. And, after a quarter century, White still works closely with Partners in Health.
Do the research, but think real-world. Farmer’s approach has been described as being based on “ethnographic analysis and real-world practicality.” As a medical anthropologist, Farmer pursues evidence-based medicine. But his vision, and the vision of Partners in Health is simply stated: “Whatever it takes.” I like that. As someone who does quite a bit of market research, I do believe in data. But at the end of the day, what do surgeons really want? Something that makes their lives easier, no doubt. That may include having greater confidence in your device versus the other guy’s. Give them gut-level reasons to believe.
I’m the first to admit that these thoughts are all very idealistic. But at the end of this, another challenging year for the economy and our industry, it seems to me that a bit of inspiration is called for. I always find it in Paul Farmer’s growing legacy. I hope you do, too. Happy Holidays.
Rob Kinslow is vice president for strategic communications at Seidler Bernstein. A journalist by training and former president of the American Medical Writers Assn. in Boston, Rob gently guides companies through the often byzantine world of brand and message strategy. His work has been recognized by the American Hospital Assn., AMWA, Diagnostic Marketing Assn., the Healthcare Information Awards, Rx Club and others. An avid magician and musician, he is also a former three-term president of the International Brotherhood of Magicians in Boston.