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New audiences, new marketing tools

Published on 06/05/10 at 11:37am
Chris Marks

Pharmaceutical industry marketers have for many years focused on turning good products into great brands, developing strong core propositions which communicate the brand’s value for the customer.

Unfortunately, too often that process is followed by the ‘same old, same old’ elements of the marketing mix in the ‘same old, same old’ way when it comes to implementation.

It’s time for pharma marketers to bring the best of 21st century thinking into this part of the process, embracing new approaches, and best practice from fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) and other sectors. We need a fresh and innovative approach to brand communications, specifically tailored to the  pharmaceutical sector.

Where does it all go wrong?

After significant investment in time and resources to build the brand, and the compelling messages that communicate the benefits and value, the challenge becomes one of how we can implement the brand - and unfortunately that is where things start to fall apart.

There is frequently a mismatch between the insight gained in building the brand messages, and what comes next - the implementation. Too often at this stage, pharma marketers take the ‘safe’ route of doing more of the same. This can be for a number of reasons (including laziness), but most often it is a question of playing safe and taking the route of apparantly low risk: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

I have to tell you at this stage that this strategy is in fact riddled with danger and risk. At first glance, the traditional use of the marketing mix appears to be the least risky - but that is simply wrong. It is in fact extremely hazardous, because low-risk can mean low initiative, and tends to excludes new thinking - and new thinking is often the thing which allows a brand to break away from simply plodding along.

What do I mean by ‘plodding along’? The same-old things: symposia, journal adverts, detail aids, speaker programmes, CME, publications, patient education programmes, advisory boards and of course the sales team.

Maybe it’s because too many pharma marketers don’t know what works and what doesn’t, or perhaps don’t understand newer elements of the marketing mix. This would stem partly from a lack of understanding of how customers make their prescribing/purchasing decisions - in other words, insight is important, as ever.

Is there an argument for adopting the ‘same-old’ in any situation? Only when the market is not changing is there an excuse at all for such a ‘same old’ approach - and there is not one part of the healthcare world where the market is standing still. So there is no argument for the same old.

If the landscape if different, then the thinking has to be different, and you don’t have to look very far to see just how much that landscape has changed.

Let’s take a couple of examples: CME is no longer a part of the marketing mix, as it has moved to being a heavily scrutinised medical affairs budget item. Sales teams and traditional detailing are becoming less and less effective, and more and more doctors deny access to sales representatives - as all the while the costs of maintaining a sales team rises.

So let’s look those elements of the marketing mix to see how we might introduce a fresh approach and innovative thinking.

The sales team

We have already seen a sharp reduction in sales team sizes, less print media and fewer conferences. To replace these old methods, we will see greater use of websites, call centres and eDetailing, and a role for internet-enabled social media.

Although sales team detailing will definitely remain a big part of the mix, it makes sense to look at alternatives that can take up the slack or off-set the risks.

Clearly, with the increasing rise in the power of the payer and policymakers, more and more of our marketing mix must be devoted to genuine account management - embracing these hitherto ‘devils incarnate’ as genuine customers with whom we must work proactively and in partnership. That means diverting sales team resource into smaller numbers of national, regional and local health-economy account managers, with the support and infrastructure to deliver value for the customer and for the company - something that in the FMCG sector, the grocery industry embraced many years ago. This is the future in our sector, and the sooner it is acknowledged, the sooner we will look to develop a marketing mix tailored to account support.

Education programmes and eLearning

Technology will have a huge impact on communications with doctors. Education and detailing will be the preserve of the internet, with or without sales rep support. It is likely that even then we will see a move away from the electronic detail to more learning resources for physicians, such as Key Opinion Leader (KOL) educational programmes.

Today’s newly qualified doctors are growing up in a multimedia learning environment, and smart providers will deliver entertaining, easy-to-access learning that doctors can dip into at their leisure. Each major disease area will have an online community of stakeholders (health care professionals, carers, providers, patients) who will drive decision making in that therapy area. Doctors, nurses, patients and payers are now engaging in online discussions within their communities about new developments and how to get better outcomes in a therapy area. It can only be a matter of time before these separate discussions merge and cross over into one single debate.

Detail aids

As we have already seen, sales stories will be based on patient benefit rather than product features - that has to be at the core of the brand.

Mobile technology (SMS, podcasts via iPods and so on) will become the essential and effective channel for communicating with the busy physician. The evolution of smaller, more portable, interconnected plug-and-play devices is inexorable, potentially bringing substantial savings to the marketing budget.

There is one indisputable fact here: ROI for physician and patient (a.k.a consumer) marketing is getting worse, whereas ROI for technology-enabled marketing is getting better.

The days of the glossy detail aid may be numbered: in the future, doctors are more likely to learn about our brands through downloads than through the sales representative going through data page-by-page. And the content will change far more frequently as well.

Decisions will increasingly be made not just about the data package and study results, but about the complete value-added package, the solution that a brand and company provides. As product differentials diminish and competition increases in a value-driven environment, the industry will be challenged to provide more education, support, and lifestyle assistance to a wider audience to ensure patients benefit fully from its product. The most cost-effective way to do this is via digital channels, where services are scalable and easily updated.

Journals will probably become downloads; print media may be a thing of the past for communication to physicians. We may be able to apply the moving image and voice-overs to Direct to Physician communication.

Patient Information Programmes

Patients are now saying that health websites are as vital to their well-being as face-to-face interactions with healthcare providers. According to a recent study, individuals who use technology to gain an education into their conditions and potential solutions fall into two broad groups: the 80% who are highly engaged patients and take active roles in health management; and the 20% who lack the confidence to play an active role in their own health.

Meanwhile, consumers engage with healthcare social media for both rational and emotional reasons. The study found that the latter are primary, as many healthcare social media users want reassurance, support, and a sense of intimacy from people who are going through a similar experience.

Though also important, rational needs are secondary, as social media users are searching for ‘foundational information’ about their specific conditions and symptoms, information about drugs and supplements, and the latest health news. More than branded or corporate destinations, third party health-related sites were cited as most important destinations for both social and editorial content. Furthermore, many people report mixed feelings about how pharmaceutical companies should participate in websites and social media, but most are open to some level of participation, as long as it is transparently disclosed. Most consumers do feel that endorsements by government and non-profit organisations, such as the patient associations, the regulatory authorities and third-party watchdog groups, add credibility to social content. If individuals are making a decision about their life, whether it’s a treatment for a medical condition or what new homes are available, they are now more likely to search Google than consult their doctor or estate agent. If they want more information, the next reference point could be their LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter contacts.

Advisory boards

Thought leadership in pharmaceuticals will be created online, through blogs and social networks - and whatever may come next. Twitter is a KOL-cascade. In pharma, it will not be long before thought leaders put forward their views, and their followers ‘retweet’ them, and their followers retweet them, and so on. For more involved discussions we can expect comment on blogs or discussions in social networks. Medicine is a global field and advances in it are discussed around the world.

Symposia and publications

Most of the major international symposia and publications are already engaging with digital technology to provide the information, presentations, papers, abstracts etc. via electronic downloads. Some have even gone so far as to encourage blogs and online forums to disseminate information. This can only continue, accelerated by a need to reduce travel costs and impact on the environment. It is difficult to envisage pharma marketers inviting customers to attend major international congresses continuing in the long term. The future will see international medical meetings occurring remotely and digitally.

What does all this mean for pharmaceutical brand teams?

The finance, retail, music and media industries have all adapted their marketing to the challenges of the new millennium, but pharma is still using the same old implementation plans and the same old mix elements.

Here are some areas in which the mix will need to change, and the challenge for brand teams is to:

1.Stop looking only at individual affiliate-based programmes - work with colleagues around the world to determine communication platforms, messages, and how you want to deliver them: it’s a global market now.

2.Empower interaction with your customers (doctors, payers, policy makers and patients) - and provide information, programmes and complete solutions that include your brands. But make sure that they are delivered via the most appropriate and convenient channel, with a feedback loop built-in.

3.Challenge legal and regulatory blockages - work out how you are going to handle things such as adverse events, overcome the issue of what is non-promotion if you are asked or if physicians discuss data not included in your label.

4.Engage in the new era - the vast majority of your future marketing investment is going to be spent in ways that you have never considered before. But remember, your customers are already there, and for far more than online surveys. Be prepared to listen to your customers: to respond in a timely way, to be completely transparent and recognise that our marketing is becoming more about one-to-one communication than a one-size-fits-all.

5.Spend as much time engaging with payers and policy makers and developing programmes and tools specifically tailored to their needs as you have with doctors in the past - they will control the destiny of your brands.

6.Remember that a brand is something the customer has a relationship with, and uses because they want to: they will determine the value that your brand adds, based on the sum of all the characteristics - tangible and intangible - that makes your product differentiated or unique in their minds.

Chris Marks is Brand Services Principal at The MSI Consultancy. He can be contacted at

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