While looking around, it won’t be difficult to spot many types of steep-priced highly innovative products, where high costs aren’t justified by high R&D expenditure, but for unique ‘customer value’ offerings. Many consumers evaluate those and decide to settle for one, instead of opting for cheaper variants – delivering the basic customer requirements in that product class or category. Although, both pharma and electronic goods belong to high tech-based knowledge industries, similar examples are in plenty of the latter, but hardly any in pharma.
Agreed that pharma is a highly regulated industry, unlike electronic goods. But so are banks, financial services, airlines, telecommunication, among many others. Interestingly, all these industries are building great brands without talking about their investment costs in R&D, while doing so.
In this article, I shall focus on – despite facing a formidable headwind, mostly for the same, pharma industry, in general, continue to lack in two critical areas of brand building. But, before doing that let me quote from some recent research papers wondering, how is this situation continuing unchanged, despite all concerned being aware of it.
Two opposing views:
Just to recap, let me put below, two diametrically opposing views that continue to clash with each one, since long:
- New and innovative drug costs being excessive, globally, lowering their prices will not harm the progress of innovation.
- Drug industry argues, any restriction of free pricing of innovative drugs, will seriously jeopardize innovation of newer medicines and treatments.
So much of divergence in the views of two key partners within the industry, can’t just continue any longer, without a serious intervention of governments across the world, including the United States.
Pharma does want to talk about ‘Cost & Value of Medicines’. But…
It’s not that pharma doesn’t want to talk about ‘Value of Medicines,’ but not, apparently, to create an ‘emotional connect’ with its stakeholders, including the patients. It appears, more as a general justification for the high cost of new drugs. For example, a pharma trade association’s communication, after acknowledging ‘that many are struggling to access the medicine they need,’ says upfront: ‘Discussions about costs are important.’ It follows a series of much-repeated common justifications, which are no- brainer, such as:
- Medicines Help Patients Avoid Expensive Hospital Services,
- Developing New Treatments and Cures is a Complex and Risky Undertaking,
- Medicines are Transforming the Treatment of Devastating Diseases.
But, the reality is, these justifications are not working on the ground, as these are not quite in sync with ‘customers’ value’ expectations, both from the company as well from the brand. Moreover, instead of establishing an ‘emotional connect’, this approach probably is further alienating many stakeholders, as several governments are now broaching the issue of price control, or some other mechanism to set drug prices.
Pharma marketers need to be eclectic:
Instead of keep following the age-old marketing and communication models, young pharma marketers need to be empowered to be eclectic. They should look around and try to fathom how is ‘marketing,’ as a business domain, changing in other fast-growing industries, and act accordingly. As pharma is a high-tech knowledge industry, let me draw examples from other similar industries, such one that innovates and manufactures electronic products.
Unlike any high-priced, high-tech electronic product companies, such as Google, Apple or Microsoft – pharma marketing communications are more like ‘justification’ centric, for charging high prices for medicines. This approach, apparently, is not just a bit defensive, but virtually negative. Whereas, unlike drug manufacturers, the above tech companies are constantly focusing on the following two areas, for creating a robust ‘corporate brand’ that infuses consumer-trust in each of their products:
- Establishing ‘emotional connects’ with customers
- Focusing on the total value of unique value offerings, rather than the high cost of innovation to justify high prices
Let me deliberate briefly on each of the above two.
The importance of establishing ‘emotional connects’ with customers:
With the penetration of technology, almost in every household, with a varying degree, though, access to a gamut of information becomes increasingly easy, so are the options available to customers. This is impacting almost every industry, including pharma and healthcare.
Thus, for corporate performance excellence, customers are now creating a space for themselves at the core of the pharma business strategy. Consequently, a need arises for the pharma marketers to enhance end-to-end customer experience. Besides, brand value offerings, this includes both short and long-term customer service offerings to ensure an ongoing emotional connect with customers, for more intense and longer-lasting engagement with trust, both on the ‘corporate brand’ and also on individual products.
Therefore, creating effective ‘emotional connects’ with customers are assuming a cutting-edge strategic importance – in multiple facets of pharma business. More ‘emotionally connected’ customers also act as a force-multiplier to enhance corporate reputation. Although, it mostly happens through word of mouth, in recent days, value added omnichannel communication by respective companies, is playing a crucial role for success in this area.
In the good old days, reaching patients or patient groups directly, would have been a challenging proposition. Most communications on products, diseases and treatments, used to be through healthcare providers. But, this is no longer so, especially in the digital world, that opened a new spectacle of opportunities for crafting patient-centric strategies – as patients become more digital-savvy, too.
Focus on brand value offerings, not on cost of innovation to justify high prices:
To dwell in this area, a series of questions that one may possibly encounter, such as: ‘How do you define value? can you measure it? What are your products and services actually worth to customers?’ Way back, these points were deliberated in the article – ‘Business Marketing: Understand What Customers Value,’ published in the November-December 1998 issue of the Harvard Business Review (HBR). It said: ‘Value in business markets is the worth in monetary terms of the technical, economic, service, and social benefits a customer company receives in exchange for the price it pays for a market offering.’ From this paper let me pick up just two critical components of value, as follows, for better understanding:
- Value in monetary terms: Such as, dollars per unit
- Value for a customer: What the person gets in exchange for the price it pays
Nevertheless, the important point to note: As ‘market offering has two elemental characteristics: its value and its price, raising or lowering the price of a market offering does not change the value that such an offering provides to a customer. Rather, it changes the customer’s incentive to purchase that market offering.’
When applied in the pharma perspective:
When the above concept of value is applied in the pharma industry perspective, it vindicates an important. Which is, tangible value offerings of an exclusive, high-priced patented products, and the same in its off-patent low-priced avatar remains unchanged, regardless of significant change in its monetary value per unit. However, unlike a patent protected drug, options for generic equivalents will be many, with differing prices.
This brings out another important facet of ‘value’. As the above HBR paper states, considerations of value take place within some context. Even when no comparable market offerings exist, there is always a competitive alternative. For example, in the pharma business, one possible competitive alternative for patented products could well be – when the Government decides to issue a Compulsory License (CL) for make the product available at a cheaper price to patients.
The name of the new game:
Thus, for an exclusive new drug, instead of focusing on cost of innovation to justify high prices, a sharp focus on ‘total value offering’ of the brand would possibly be the name of the new game. It will entail persuading the ‘connected customers’ to realize the total value of both the tangible and intangible cost of each benefit that the product offers, rather than simply the cost of a pill. In doing so, a pharma marketer and his entire team, must have an accurate understanding of what its customers value, and also, would value. This calls for a painstaking research, and a mammoth real time data analysis.
Developing a unique ‘Customer Value’ model:
As the above HBR article reiterates, ‘customer value’ models are not easy to develop. Unfortunately, pharma’s ‘value delivery system’ is still tuned to a self-serving mode and not ‘customer value’ centric.Thus, marketers may wish to note some key points in this regard, as below:
- Many customers understand their own requirements, but do not necessarily know what fulfilling those requirements is worth to them.
- This leaves an opportunity to demonstrate persuasively, the total ‘customer value’ that the new brand provides, and how it fulfills their requirements.
- The strategy makers would have to necessarily generate a comprehensive list of ‘customer value’ elements, based on robust data, on an ongoing basis.
- The acquired insight on – what customers value, and would value, to gain marketplace advantages over competitors, would form the core of the business strategy.
The next stage would be a pilot study to validate the model and understand the variations, if any, in the estimates. It is also vital to note that an improvement in some functionality may appear important, but may not necessarily mean that customers are willing to pay for it. The aim should always be delivering superior value, and get an equitable return for it. Thus, enhancing end-to-end customer experience in this effort, becomes a critical ingredient to brand success.
After the article – ‘Business Marketing: Understand What Customers Value,’ published in the November-December 1998 issue of the Harvard Business Review (HBR), in June 2000, a similar article was published in the ‘McKinsey Quarterly.’ The paper titled, ‘A business is a value delivery system,’ also emphasized the importance of a clear, well-articulated “value proposition” for each targeted market segment.
This means a simple statement of benefits that the company intends to provide to each segment, along with the approximate price the company will charge for each of those. The paper also underlined, the strength of the buying proposition for any customer is a function of the product value minus the price. In other words, the ‘surplus value’ that the customer will enjoy, once that product is paid for.
Over a period of time, high prices of new and innovative drugs are attracting negative headlines, like - ‘High cost of hepatitis drug reflects a broken pricing system.’ This continues, despite high decibel justification of the ‘exorbitant’ cost of innovation. Undaunted, Big Pharma and its large trade associations remain reluctant to jettison their old advocacy toolkit.
They seem to be still on a – ‘Listen and believe what we are saying’ mode. This is vindicated by the December 14, 2019 report that revealed: ‘The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the drug industry’s top lobbying group, filed a lawsuit this week against the state of Oregon, claiming two laws it passed requiring greater transparency of drug prices are unconstitutional.’
Continuation of such approaches, on the contrary, is further alienating many stakeholders, especially the patients and the governments. Thus, time appears more than ripe today to focus more on delivering measurable ‘surplus value’ of new products, to well engaged and connected patients, both globally and locally.
By: Tapan J. Ray
Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.