How Relevant Is A Pharma Brand Name To Patients?

Are brand names necessary for medicines? Well – its’s a contentious issue, at least, as on date. It becomes the subject of a raging debate when the same question is slightly modified to: – Are brand names necessary for prescription drugs?

The current reality is, almost all pharma companies believe, and have been following this practice. This has been happening for decades, regardless of the fact that unlike other branded non-pharma products, each and every drug also carries another specific name – the generic name. Which is why, questions are often raised, why can’t drugs be prescribed only in generic names by the doctors?

Before I proceed further, let me recapitulate the definition of a ‘brand’. One of the most comprehensive definitions of a brand is: Unique design, sign, symbol, words, or a combination of these that identifies a product and differentiates it from its competitors. It helps create a level of credibility, quality, and satisfaction in the consumer’s mind, by standing for certain benefits and value. And, the creative marketing practices followed in this process is termed as ‘branding’. Keeping this at the center, in this article, let me try to arrive at a relevant perspective on this subject.

The arguments in favor:

Votaries of pharma branding believe that a pharma brand helps establish an emotional connect with the consumers on various parameters, including quality, efficacy, safety and reliability. This is expected to establish a preferential advantage of a brand over its competitors. Quoting the ‘father of advertising’ David Ogilvy, some of these proponents relate the outcome of branding to offering ‘intangible sum of a product’s attributes’ to its consumers, and also prospective consumers.

Entrepreneur India puts across such favorable outcome of ‘branding’ very candidly, which is also applicable to branding medicines – both patented and generic ones. It says, “Consistent, strategic branding leads to a strong brand equity, which means the added value brought to your company’s products or services that allows you to charge more for your brand than what identical, unbranded products command.”

The general belief within the pharma industry is that, ‘branding’ facilitates doctors in choosing and prescribing medicines to patients, especially in those situations where the choices are many. Aficionados of pharma product branding argue, that to save time, doctors usually select those top of mind products, which they are familiar with and feel, can serve the purpose well. This belief prompts the necessity to go all out for ‘branding’ by the pharma companies, even when the process is an expensive one.

Where pharma ‘branding’ is necessary:

There are a few old publications of the 1980’s, which claim that studies based on human psychology have found that medicines with brand names can have a better perceived impact on the actual effectiveness of ‘Over the Counter (OTC)’ medications. One of the examples cited was of aspirin.

Be that as it may, the relevance of branding for OTC pharmaceutical products is undeniable, where a medicinal product is generally treated just as any other Fast-Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) goods. Establishing an emotional connect of OTC brands with consumers is, therefore, considered an important process to create a preferential perceived advantage over its competitors.

There is no well-laid out legal or procedural pathway, as yet, for pharma OTC brands in India. No ‘Direct to Consumer (DTC) promotion is allowed in the country for Schedule H and Schedule X drugs – the only exceptions being Ayurvedic proprietary medicines and for homeopathy drugs. That said, the question continues to haunt, how relevant is branding for prescription drugs – now?

Relevance of ‘branding’ for prescription drugs:

The juggernaut of ‘branding prescription drugs’, riding mostly the wave of vested interests – of many hues and color, has been made to be perceived as necessary to ensure drug quality and safety for patients. It continues to move on, up until today, even for highly specialized prescription drugs. Nonetheless, some initiatives are visible from some Governments to gradually shift this contentious paradigm.

This move has been catalyzed by a blend of changing times with changing expectations of a large number of patients. They want to be an integral part in their treatment decisions, receive more personalized healthcare from both doctors and pharma companies. Patients, ultimately, want to feel confident that they’re receiving the best treatment – says a fresh study.

A number of other research papers also confirm that, a virtually static bar of patients’ expectations, in the disease treatment process – either for themselves or their near and dear ones, is slowly but surely gaining height, measurably. For better outcomes, patients have started expecting new types of services both from their doctors and the drug manufacturers. This process begins, even before a final decision is taken in the treatment process. As this paradigm shifts, pharma players would be significantly impacted – in several parameters.

Fast expanding digital empowerment options for all, across the world, is expediting this process further, including India. Placing oneself in the midst of it, one may ponder – how relevant is pharma branding today, as is being highlighted by many, since long.

In my view, a part of the answer to the above question arguably lies in a study titled, “Product Launch: The Patient Has Spoken”. The Key findings from the survey that covered 8,000 patients from three generations in the US, the UK, Germany and France, were published by ‘Accenture Life Sciences’ in January 2018. The research reveals how these patients evaluate and select new treatments in eight therapeutic areas (immune system, heart, lungs, brain, cancer, hormone/ metabolism and eye disease) across three generations, spanning across – Baby boomers, Generation X and Millennials.

Brands don’t matter to most patients…outcomes do:

69 percent of patients said, the benefits of the product are more important to them than the brand of the product. The four top factors influencing patients’ while making decisions about their healthcare are listed in the report as:

  • The doctor/ physician relationship: 66 percent
  • The patient’s ability to maintain their current lifestyle: 55 percent
  • Patients’ ease of access to health care they’ll need: 53 percent
  • Patients’ financial situation / ability to pay: 51 percent. When this is read with another finding where, 48 percent of patients believe that their doctors discuss the whole range of product options with them, a more interesting scenario emerges.

Further, lack of knowledge about the treatments available, as expressed by 42 percent of patients obviously indicate, pharma players’ intent to better inform patients by educating the doctors through brand promotion is not working. Interestingly, brand loyalty or popularity appeared relatively unimportant, ranking twelfth out of 14 influencing factors. Just 25 percent of patients characterized themselves as having a strong affinity with brands in a healthcare setting – the above report revealed.

Could there be an alternative approach?

An effective ‘branding’ exercise should lead to creating a ‘brand loyalty’ for any product. For pharma companies, doctors’ brand loyalty should lead to more number of its brand prescriptions. This expectation emanates from the idea that the prescription brand will represent something, such as quality, trust, assured relief, or may well be anything else. That means pharma product ‘branding’ is primarily aimed at the medical profession.

In an alternative approach to the current practice, an article titled, “From Managing Pills to Managing Brands”, published sometime back in the March-April 2000 issue of the Harvard Business Review (HBR), finds its great relevance, even today. It says, pharma companies can retain the loyalty of customers by building a franchise around specific therapeutic areas based on a focused approach to R&D. In other words, their corporate brand can replace individual drug brands. For example, a doctor looking for a treatment for – say asthma, would look for the latest GlaxoSmithKline medicines. Let me hasten to add, I used this example just to illustrate a point. This may appear as a long shot to some. Nonetheless, it would significantly reduce the cost of marketing, and subsequently the cost of a drug to patients. Incidentally, I also wrote about the relevance of ‘Corporate Branding’ in this Blog on June 15, 2015.

Conclusion:

With this fast-emerging backdrop, the Accenture Study raises an important issue to this effect. It wonders, whether the expenses incurred towards branding medicines, especially, during product launch be significantly reduced and be made more productive?

Illustrating the point, the report says, in 2016, the US pharmaceutical and healthcare industry alone spent US$ 15.2 billion in marketing. To earn a better business return, could a substantial part of this expenditure be reallocated to other programs that matter more to patients, such as access to patient service programs, and creating ‘Real-World Evidence (RWE)’ data that can document improved health outcomes, particularly those that matter to patients?

Well-crafted pharma branding and other associated initiatives, targeted predominantly to the medical profession, may make a doctor emotionally obligated to prescribe any company’s specific brands, for now. However, in the gradually firming-up ‘patient outcomes’-oriented environment, where patients want to participate in the treatment decision making process, will it remain so?

Dispassionately thinking, to most patients, a brand is as good or bad as the perceived value it delivers to them in the form of outcomes. Or, in other words, prescription pharma brands may not even matter to most of them, at all, but the outcomes will be. Hopefully, before it is too late pharma players would realize that, especially the well-informed patients are becoming co-decision makers in choosing the drug that a doctor will prescribe to them. If not, the current targeted process of pharma prescription drug branding, may lose its practical relevance, over a period of time.

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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