How an Experiential Stunt in Finland Challenged Lobbying Norms and Sparked National Debate

Finnish retailer S Group enlisted a creative agency to go up against the pharmacy monopoly

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Lobbying typically gets a bad rap, conjuring images of backdoor deals corrupting politicians with money. But over in Finland, a creative agency challenged these norms with an unusual lobbying campaign using experiential marketing.

Unlike many lobbing efforts that happen behind closed doors, the campaign for Finnish retail giant S Group garnered national media attention and galvanized supporters and critics across the country. It was created by United Imaginations, an agency founded last year by three former TBWA\Helsinki executives. 

The context is this: Finland’s pharmacy market is one of the strictest and monopolized in the European Union. Medicines, including cold medicines or painkillers, are only allowed to be sold at privately-owned community pharmacies. 

S-Group, Finland’s largest retail chain, is lobbying for a system akin to other European countries, where medicines could be sold in retail chains, supermarkets and via online pharmacies (while still under the supervision of professional pharmacists). The retailer said in a statement that it “wants Finnish consumers to benefit from more affordable medicines, better opening hours and new pharmacy services.”  

Using experiential techniques

To challenge the status quo, S Group enlisted United Imaginations, which decided to bring this debate to the public. The agency built a model pharmacy in the heart of Finnish capital Helsinki. 

In the prototype pharmacy, people can browse the shelves and experience first-hand a different way of accessing medicines–thus drawing their own conclusions about whether to change the system. 

“S Group wanted to rethink what lobbying could be in a modern society open to debate and new perspectives,” said Jyrki Poutanen, creative director and founding member of United Imaginations. “No hiding behind gimmicky messages, no hush-hush about their purpose. They wanted to be completely open about their role in the conversation.”

Visitors could browse the prototype pharmacy and decide for themselves whether the country needed itUnited Imaginations

The campaign took a turn when a critic noticed a typo on a package of fake vitamin D, which used the incorrect unit of micrograms instead of milligrams. The error sparked a debate in Finnish media, with the opposition arguing that supermarkets had no right to sell any type of medicine. 

But that mistake, which was then fixed, ended up bringing more visibility to the campaign. The model pharmacy became headline news in Finland and started a national conversation about having a more open and competitive pharmacy market. 

The initial impact

Following this debate, Poutanen told Adweek that creative agencies have a role to play in a more transparent and ethical form of lobbying. 

“It was a big leap for the agency. We were taking our knowledge of experiential marketing into a new domain and putting ourselves on the line,” he said. “When you are clear about your purpose, the reward is always greater than the risk.” 

S Group is still gathering results from the campaign, but it has so far reached an estimated 3.1 million people on social media (or 60% of Finland’s population of 5.5 million), according to United Imaginations. In media outlets, the overall sentiment for a new pharmacy system was 63% positive or neutral and on social media it was 79%. 

Finland will hold parliamentary elections at the beginning of April, with the new government set to examine the pharmacy regulations. 

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