“About two-thirds of drug launches don’t meet expectations. Improving that record requires pharmaceutical companies to recognize the world has changed and adjust their marketing accordingly.” This appeared in an article – “The secret of successful drug launches,” published by McKinsey & Company in March 2014. There isn’t any recent evidence, either, that this situation has improved now.
Even innovative drugs no longer guarantee a commercial success, as greater competition is building up there, as well. Today, the number of such drugs per indication has risen by 37 percent since 2006 making the task tougher, according to another article of McKinsey & Company, titled ‘Why innovative products aren’t enough for a successful pharma launch,’ brought out in August 2017.
Top marketers’ intimate involvement in these launches, backed by robust marketing strategies notwithstanding, large scale ‘brand failures’ or rather ‘branding failures,’ still remains unavoidable. Although, its telltale signs are more often visible immediately after launch, but may happen even several years after.
Pundits are just not scratching their heads, but doing extensive research to fathom why it happens. However, with changing times – the market dynamics and the research outcomes/inferences keep changing too. And that will be the focus of my today’s discussion in this article, while I explore various facets of the same.
Is pharma branding just a marketing exercise?
That pharma branding is not just a marketing exercise and its failure at any stage – from launch to even years after, I reckon, isn’t the sole responsibility of the pharma marketer. This is mainly because, doctors would ideally prefer to prescribe specific pharma brands and patients would feel confident to use those, because of successful construction of a positive brand bias. Which in turn creates a higher perceived efficacy and a low anticipated safety concern with the brand.
Although, it will be right to assume that good pharma marketers are solely responsible for the creation of this intangible brand asset, but the tangible intrinsic brand value should necessarily be ingrained into each dose of the same that patients consume, always.
Thus, tangible brand value creation, its maintenance, if not enhancement, span across many other functional domains of a drug company. Some of these include, unbiased reporting with expected disclosures of all clinical trial results, maintaining a robust and highly efficient supply chain network or high-quality manufacturing facilities, besides a few others. Evidences exist that irrational pricing could also result in a kind of brand failure. Considering these aspects in totality, creating a positive bias during a pharma brand-building process, is a collective responsibility, and not just of the marketers.
Why creating a positive brand bias is a collective responsibility?
There are ample examples to substantiate that creating a positive stakeholder bias during its brand-building process, is a collective responsibility. Let me illustrate this point by drawing a few examples of branded failures prompted by supply-chain network, disclosures on clinical development and of course perceived ‘irrational’ pricing that falls basically in the marketing domain. It is worth noting, similar incidents may also be related to the manufacturing process, even for top selling generic drugs.
Supply-chain: In the beginning of 2008, serious adverse drug events, some even fatal, were reported with Heparin (Baxter), which used to be widely used as an injectable anticoagulant. Around 80 people died from contaminated Heparin products in the U.S. The US FDA reported that such contaminated Heparin was detected from at least 12 other countries. The primary reason of the same was a serious breach in the supply-chain integrity.
Disclosures on clinical trial results: On 30 September 2004, Vioox (rofecoxib), a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) that had been on the market since 1999, was suddenly withdrawn by its manufacturer MSD, owing to concerns about its effect on cardiovascular health.
‘Irrational’ pricing: Like a lot of new cancer drugs, Zaltrap (aflibercept) wasn’t cheap carrying a price tag of USD 9,600 a month. But its price was quickly taken down. This followed some serious public flak, such as, doctors from Memorial Sloan-Kettering (MSK) wrote a blistering review for The New York Times in November 2012. They declared that MSK was taking the drug off the institution’s formulary, because less expensive and just as good alternative angiogenesis inhibitors were available. Although, Sanofi initially defended the price, it subsequently backed down, cutting down the price by half.
Manufacturing process: On September 13, 2019, the FDA announced that preliminary tests found low levels of N-nitrosodimethylamine (NDMA) in ranitidine (Zantac), a heartburn medication. Consequently, almost all companies, including Novartis (through its generic division, Sandoz), GSK, Apotex and many others announced its withdrawal from a large number of markets. Interestingly, these announcements came after a Connecticut-based online pharmacy informed the FDA that it had detected NDMA in multiple ranitidine products under certain test conditions. The NDMA impurity was believed to have been introduced by changes in the manufacturing process. There are several other well-reported examples, as well.
These examples vindicate that creating a positive brand bias remains a collective responsibility throughout the product lifecycle. And it involves several functional areas of drug companies. That said, let me now focus on the creation of a positive bias for pharma brands.
Creating a positive brand bias:
Skillful creation of a positive brand-bias, supported by high quality – tangible and intangible value offerings, is the net outcome of any successful branding process. It augments stakeholder confidence, leading to an increased prescription generation, alongside a favorable patient experience.
More often than not, a positive brand-bias successfully brings into being greater perceived brand-efficacy and higher perceived brand-quality, with lesser anticipated safety concerns. Consequently, the process invigorates an emotional bonding with customers for a long-term brand-loyalty. A positive brand-bias also creates a strong brand equity that often helps in working out a good pricing strategy for the company.
An interesting strategy prescribed – recently:
According to Changing Minds: ‘Priming works by providing people with information that is easily brought to mind. The prompt that brings the information to mind can be an implanted and specific trigger or can be an associated term that will naturally bring back the primed information.’ Illustrating the point, it adds: ‘Prime-and-prompt can be a bit like firing a gun, where priming cocks and prompting pulls the trigger.’
Putting this concept in the pharma industry perspective, the CMI/Compas officials explained in the above article, ‘pharma marketers can create primes with product messages that condition people to recall their product when they need medicine or are diagnosed with a condition.’
Hence, a pharma marketer’s adroitness in the ‘priming’ strategy helps ‘prompt’ the desirable action, such as, going to a doctor to ask about a product. Hence, the persuasion technique is termed – ‘prime and prompt’, the paper explained. Naturally, the question that follows: what are the key principles behind this strategy?
Key principles behind ‘prime and prompt’ strategy:
As elucidated by the Changing Minds, when thinking and deciding, we are influenced by related information from the past. At that time, our memories would supply that information, which helps us understand, make sense, decide and act on the subject at hand. Thus, those things that come at the top of mind will have a more immediate and disproportionate influential effect, while those things which are long forgotten may have little or no effect.
It further adds: ‘Priming is driven by implicit memory, where recall is entirely unconscious as the person ‘just knows’ without having to think hard or otherwise put effort into remembering or working things out.’
How to apply the ‘prime and prompt’ strategy in pharma?
It’s no-brainer that to use ‘priming’ in the persuasion process, say for increasing prescription support, the marketers need to provide stakeholders with relevant information beforehand, and more importantly, in a different setting. And only thereafter, they need to focus on a normal brand persuasion strategy. One may most appropriately comment, this is easier said than done in the drug industry.
Taking a cue from the above interview with the CMI/Compas officials, some of the broad steps of the ‘prime and prompt’ strategy, I reckon, may be summarized as follows:
- Consistent messaging through omnichannel media achieving target reach and frequency, as I had explained before.
- For intended top of mind recall, a combination of print, digital, social, search, display at appropriate places and in TV, especially for OTC drugs, should consistently surround the target audience for ‘priming.’
- According to a recent research, the most highly rated ‘priming’ spots for pharma ads for physicians are medical journals, conferences and the likes. Similarly, for patients, appropriate displays at doctors’ clinics and similar places also appeared to be one of the top-rated ‘priming’ spots.
Consequently, a well thought-out ‘priming’ strategy, skillfully executed – based on research findings, is expected to be effective. It will then help trigger desirable ‘prompts’ for the target-audience, augmenting a successful branding process. However, it comes with a caveat that the tangible intrinsic value of the brand, especially those which originate in other functional areas, don’t get compromised or changed in any way.
Branding exercise in the pharma industry has never been more challenging, as it is today – both for innovative and generic drugs. As stated above, the number of innovative drugs per indication has risen by 37 percent since 2006, making the market competition tougher. Likewise, product proliferation with cut-throat pricing for branded generics, is also making the generic drug marketers grasping at straws, as it were.
In this challenging situation, creating a positive stakeholder bias for brands, as the net outcome of the pharma branding process, is a collective responsibility. Any non-marketing misstep in the tangible brand value offering, could sweep a brand away to oblivion – not just during launch, but at any stage of its life-cycle. Pharma marketers will of course be solely responsible to create the critical intangible brand assets, such as a positive stakeholder bias for brands.
At this tough time for pharma branding, several fresh marketing concepts like, ‘prime and prompt’ are now being seriously evaluated. Thus, I reckon, its also a time for astute marketers in the pharma industry to test the water, in pursuit of excellence.
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.