Evolving Scenario of Non-Personal Promotion in Pharma Marketing

In the Indian pharmaceutical industry, ‘Non-Personal Promotion (NPP)’ is gradually expected to assume much greater strategic importance than what it is today, if at all, in the overall strategic marketing ball game.

This process would get hastened as and when the Department of Pharmaceuticals (DoP) decides to ‘walk the talk’ with mandatory implementation requirement of its ‘Uniform Code of Pharmaceutical Marketing Practices (UCPMP)’, with necessary teeth built into it for proper enforcement. Thereafter, pharma sales and marketing process would possibly not remain quite the same.

In that scenario, dolling out ‘Freebies’ of various kinds and values to the customers, that has been happening over a long period of time, would attract penal consequences as would be defined by the Government.

This, in turn, is expected to create virtually a level playing field for all the pharma players in the brand marketing warfare, irrespective of how deep their pockets are. Consequently, without any lucrative incentives to offer to the important doctors, Medical Representatives (MRs) in general, in my view, would find access to busy important doctors becoming increasingly tougher, and much less productive.

Not just an imagination:

This is not totally an imaginary situation, as it has already started happening elsewhere.

Stringent legal and regulatory measures are now being put in place, both for the pharmaceutical companies and also for the doctors, in various developed markets of the world to minimize alleged marketing malpractices.

In tandem, following noteworthy developments are taking place more frequently than ever before:

  • A large number of high value penalties are being regularly levied by the judiciary and/or regulatory authorities of various countries to many big name global pharma players for alleged marketing malpractices.
  • Some measurable changes are taking place in the area of ‘access to busy medical practitioners’ by the MRs, more in those countries.

A recent study:

According to a recent study of 2015 by ZS Associates, published in ‘AccessMonitor™ 2015’, MRs’ access to important prescribers are declining steadily over the last 6 to 7 years. This study was based on analysis of ‘Call Reports’ of 70 percent of all US pharma companies’ MRs. The report reviewed in great detail how often over 400,000 physicians and other prescribers meet with MRs who visit their offices.

The decrease in MR access to prescribers from 2008 to 2015 was captured as follows:

Year MR Access to Prescribers (%)
2015 47
2014 51
2013 55
2008 80

Source: ‘AccessMonitor™ 2015

This trend is indeed striking. It won’t be much difficult either to ascribe a plausible reason to it, when viewed in perspectives of increasingly tough pharma sales and marketing environment in the US.

Over a period of time, stringent laws and regulations, both for the prescribers and also for the pharma players, are being strictly enforced.  The ‘cause and effect’ of the overall development can possibly be drawn, when one finds in the above report that throughout the US, more than half of all doctors are voluntarily “access restricted” in varying degree, as on date.

Most impacted specialty area:

Coming to restricted access to doctors in medical specialty areas, oncology was highlighted in the ZS Associates report among the most restrictive specialties. This is evident from its analysis that today around 73 percent of the cancer specialists restrict MR access, where around 75 percent of them were “MR-friendly” as recently as 2010.

With this increasing south bound trend of “access restricted” doctors over the past decade, at least in the US, and with a strong likelihood of its continuity in the future too, the pressure on getting cost-effective per MR productivity keeps mounting commensurately. Hence, the search for newer and effective NPP platforms of modern times is also becoming more relevant to generate desirable prescription output from the important busy medical practitioners.

Any viable alternative? 

Although virtually unthinkable today, it would be interesting to watch, whether viable alternatives to pharma MRs emerge in the near future to overcome this critical barrier. As necessity is the mother of all inventions, pharma companies are expected to find out soon, how best to respond in this challenging situation for business excellence.

More interestingly, India being a low-cost thriving ground for technological solutions of critical problems of many types, I would be curious to watch how do the pharma players synergize with ‘Information Technology (IT)’ sector to pre-empt similar fall-out in India, as and when it happens.

Non-Personal Promotion: 

In these circumstances, the question arises, when productive personal access to busy doctors through MRs becomes a real issue, what are other effective strategic measures pharma marketers can choose from, for fruitful engagement with those doctors?

Relevant Non-Personal Promotion (NPP), yet personalized, has the potential to create a favorable brand experience and image in the overall brand-building process, leading to increased prescription generation. Application of various high to low tech-based NPP tools is more feasible today than ever before, especially when the use of smart phones, tablet PCs and iPads are becoming so common within the busy medical practitioners.

Major benefits:

There are, at least, the following four key benefits that NPP in pharma marketing could offer:

  • Companies can proactively get engaged with even those doctors who would not prefer visits by MRs or those visits are failing to yield the desired results, as before.
  • Personalized, flexible, persuasive, interactive and cost efficient brand or disease related communication can be made available to even extremely busy doctors, at any time of their choice. This is quite unlike personal ‘one on one’ meetings with MRs, that are now taking place usually during or around the busy working hours.
  • Helps create a positive impression in the doctors’ minds that their busy schedules with patients are valued and not disturbed, respecting their wish and desire for the same.
  • Built-in provisions to encourage the doctors requesting for more specific information online, would enhance the possibility of ongoing customer interactions for productive long term engagement.

Based on all these, it appears to me, creative use of modern technology based NPP tools show a great potential to create a ‘leap-frog’ effect in augmenting the pharma brand-equity in all situation, especially during restricted access to all those heavy prescribers, who matter the most.

From message ‘Push’ to information ‘Pull’:

One of the fundamental differences between Personal-Promotion (PP) of pharma brands through MRs and Non-Personal Promotion (NNP) of the same, is a major shift from ‘Push’ messaging to the modern day trend of information ‘Pull’.

In the era of Internet and different types of ‘Web Search’, people want to ‘Pull’ only the information that they want, and at a time of their personal choice, if not in a jiffy. In this context, broader utilization of especially digital medium based NPP with navigational tools, would be of great relevance.

Any specific request coming from the target doctors in response to personalized e-mails or other direct communications may be delivered through the MRs. This would help creating an important and additional opportunity to strengthen the relationship between the prescribers and the pharma companies.

A good NPP strategy, therefore, needs to be crafted by creating a platform for ongoing engagement with the prescribers, primarily through information ‘Pull’, rather than making it just another part of any specific promotional campaign through message ‘Push’.

The segments to initially concentrate upon:

Till mandatory UCPMP comes into force with stringent compliance requirements, and in tandem MCI guidelines for the doctors acquire necessary teeth, Indian pharma industry, at least, can start warming up with NPP.

A sharper focus on NPP, as I see it, is required in the following pharma marketing situation, at least as a key supporting strategy:

  • Extremely busy doctors, who do not want to meet the MRs
  • Important doctors, who are not too attentive during brand communication
  • Potential heavy prescribers, who do not prefer interaction with MRs during meetings, with poor engagement level
  • For promotion of important ‘mature brands’ or ‘cash cows’ to free MRs’ time to focus on newer products

NPP and “Cash Cows”

NPP could be very relevant for ‘Mature Brands’ or the ‘Cash Cows’, especially for those pharma players having a large number of such brands and at the same time are also introducing new products. This situation is not very uncommon in the Indian pharma industry, either.

With such ‘mature brands’, the MRs have already done a superb job, who are now required to concentrate on making ‘Stars’ with other new products.

It would, therefore, be more meaningful to opt for a lower cost engagement with NPP for these brands, at least for the busy doctors, across multiple channels. Consequently, this strategy would further boost the margins of mature brands, sans deployment of a large number of more expensive MRs.

Platforms to explore:

The emerging situation offers a never before opportunity to use many interesting channels and interactive platforms for flexible and effective tech-based customer engagements. These can be used both for the doctors and also for the patients’ engagement initiatives. Exploration of platforms, such as, custom made health apps, social media, WhatsApp, e-mails and messengers using smartphones and mobile handsets, has already been initiated by some pharma players, though in bits and pieces.

Trapped in an ‘Archaic Strategy Cocoon’?

I wrote an article on the above subject in this blog dated June 17, 2013 titled, “Pharma Marketing in India: 10 Chain Events to Catalyze a Paradigm Shift

In that article, I mentioned that over a long period of time, Indian pharmaceutical industry seems to have trapped itself in a difficult to explain ‘Archaic Strategy Cocoon’. No holds bar sales promotion activities, with very little of cerebral strategic marketing, continue to dominate the ball game of hitting the month-end numbers, even today.

It is about time to come out of this cocoon and prepare for the future, proactively, boldly, creatively and squarely. This will require a strategic long term vision to be implemented in an orderly, time-bound and phased manner to effectively convert all these challenges into high growth business opportunities.

Conclusion:

Like many others, I too believe that ‘face to face’ meetings still remain the most effective method for MRs’ brand detailing to doctors. It may remain so, at least, for some more time.

Nonetheless, in the gradually changing sales and marketing environment, pharma players, I reckon, should no longer rely on the personal visits alone. Instead, they should start exploring multi-channel, mostly tech-based, interactive and personalized NPP as effective augmentation, if not alternatives, for customer engagement to achieve the business goals.

In an environment thus created, it appears, the same or even a lesser number of MRs would be able to effectively orchestrate a large number of communication channels, facilitated by simple yet high technology online platforms.

All NPP channels and platforms would need to be designed and used as preferred by the busy medical practitioners and at any time of their choice, which could even be outside the usual working hours for a MR. In a transparent and mostly online sales and marketing monitoring process, physical supervision and guidance of, at least, the front line managers may also become irrelevant, as we move on.

In India, most pharmaceutical players are attuned to similar genre of promotional strategy-mix, predominantly through MRs, for all types of doctors and specialties, though the message may vary from one specialty to the other. A large number of companies also don’t seem to have organized research-based credible data. These are mainly on, what types of engagement platforms – personal or non-personal – and at what time, each busy prescriber would prefer for product information access and sharing.

Pharma sales marketing environment is slowly but steadily undergoing a metamorphosis, all over the world. This change is very unlikely to spare India, ultimately. The evolving paradigm of mostly high-tech driven and extremely user-friendly NPP in pharma marketing, has the potential to reap rich harvest. The early adopters, making adequate provisions for scaling up, are likely to gain a cutting edge competitive advantage to excel in business performance.

Scalable and creative use of NPP has a ‘Zing Factor’ too. Nonetheless, pharma marketing strategies have been too much tradition bound, by choice. By and large, most of what are being followed today reflect high attachment to past practices, with some tweaking here or there…tech-based or otherwise.

Well before it becomes a compelling strategic option, as the looming pharma marketing environment unfolds with the UCPMP becoming mandatory for all, would the Indian pharma companies come out of the ‘Archaic Cocoon’ to proactively embrace NPP with required zest and zeal?

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.

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