Pharma Marketing: Time For A Disruptive Change with A New Breed of Marketers

In Today’s fast-changing world, as I indicated in several of my previous articles, more and more people first try to understand the causative factors of their ailments, and options available for effective remedial measures. They strive to get such information, either from the cyberspace or by word of mouth from well informed individuals or other sources. This process starts before treatment, and continues, at times, even after remission of the disease.

Even in the developed countries, a scope exists for self-medication for common ailments with OTC drugs, duly approved by respective country’s drug regulators. A point to ponder, most of these were ‘only prescription’ medicines before going off-patent, and after enjoying 20 years of exclusivity with pricing freedom. During their patent life, self-treatment was illegal with any of these molecules, if not dangerous. The same tradition continues today.

The bottom-line is, many patients are now trying to understand their diseases from sources other than the physician. Good or bad, the reality is, such patients generally prefer to visit a doctor as and when they deem it necessary. While visiting a clinic, they already have, not just some idea of the ailment, but also in what way they would prefer to get themselves treated and approximate cost of each. One should not presume, either, that majority of them are unaware of the risks involved with this approach.

Pharma marketers today can’t just wish away this emerging trend of patients and patient groups getting increasingly more informed. Trying to stop this trend will be a Herculean task, similar to swimming against a very strong current. Managing this situation in a win-win way is now a key task of a pharma marketer. In this article, dwelling on this trend, I shall focus on the need for a disruptive change in pharma marketing and the new breed of drug marketers.

Calls for a fundamental shift in pharma ‘marketing focus’:

Achieving this objective warrants a fundamental, if not a disruptive shift, in the ‘marketing focus’ of pharma companies – from traditional ‘product management’ to modern ‘brand management.’

With patented ‘me-too’ drugs, including ‘Fixed Dose Combinations (FDCs)’, as well as generics, now dominating the market, some sort of ‘commoditization’ of drugs are taking place in the pharma industry, whether one likes it or not.

No significant differential advantages oruniqueness exist between such products manufactured by different drug companies. Consequently, doctors or patients have enough choices to prescribe or buy, drugs with comparable efficacy, safety, quality standards and matching price range, from different pharma players.

Shift from product marketing to brand marketing:

One may possibly ask aren’t both quite the same? Is there any meaningful difference between these two? Thus, taking a pause, let us try to understand what’s the difference between these two.

Yes, for many there is not much difference between these two, especially in the pharma industry. Hence, many drug companies name this function as ‘product management’, while others call it ‘brand management’. In fact, these two are often used as interchangeable terminologies in the drug industry. Nonetheless, this understanding is far from being correct.

The key focus in ‘pharma product marketing’ is on the drug itself – its intrinsic value offerings to patients in terms of efficacy, safety, quality and often the cost. Thus, ‘product marketing’ approach may work for breakthrough drugs, but not for ‘me-too’ patented drugs or generic ones to achieve the desired goals of the respective companies, consistently.

Whereas, pharma ‘brand marketing’ in its true form, creates much more value than pharma ‘product marketing.’ The former dovetails intrinsic values of the drug with a set of strong feelings and emotions around the brand, purely based on what patients or consumers would want to experience from it. This process makes even a me-too brand stand out, creating a strong personality around it and differentiating itself head and shoulder above competitors. Importantly, the bedrock of conceptualizing these powerful feelings and emotions, must necessarily be robust, relevant and fresh research data. No doubt, the task is a challenging one– and not every marketer’s cup of tea.

Why building personality for pharma brands and services is necessary?

If we look around the healthcare industry, we shall be able to realize the importance of building personality for a medicine, especially generic drugs with a brand name, in the Indian context.

For example, many hospitals offer similar medical treatment facilities, follow similar treatment guidelines and their cost may also not be very different. But why different people prefer different ones among these, and all hospitals don’t get a similar number of patients? Same thing happens during the patients’ selection of doctors from many, having similar qualification, experience and expertise.

This happens mainly due to the attachment of a persona around each that creates a particular feeling and emotion among patients while choosing one of them. The process and reasons of creation of a persona may be different, but it certainly differentiates one from the other for the consumer. The same thing happens with virtually undifferentiated ‘me-too’ patented drugs or generic medicines.

Time to create a ‘strong pull’ for a drug, instead of ‘push’ by any means:

To create a ‘strong pull’ successfully, specifically for ‘me-too’ patented molecule or generic drugs, there is an urgent need for a fundamental change in the organization’s marketing approach – a shift in focus from ‘product marketing’ to ‘brand marketing’.

Otherwise, current pharma marketing practices for creating a ‘strong push’ for drugs that often involve alleged serious malpractices’ will continue. But continuation of this approach is not sustainable any longer, for scores of reasons.

The benefits of pharma ‘brand marketing’ in bullet points:

To summarize the key benefits of ‘brand marketing’ in pharma, the following points come at the top of mind:

  • ‘Brand marketing’ of drugs helps escaping avoidable and unsustainable heavy expenditure to create a ‘strong product push,’ often resorting to contentious marketing practices.
  • Proper ‘brand marketing’ of drugs needs high quality cerebral and multi-talented marketing teams, rather than the power of ‘deep pocket’ to buy prescriptions. This creates a snowballing effect of cutting edge talent development within the organization, along with a culture of leading by examples, for a sustainable future success.
  • ‘Brand marketing’ is a better, if not the best way to make a drug most preferred choice in a crowd of similar branded generics or ‘me-too’ patented drugs.
  • Paying doctors for prescribing a drug does not help developing loyal customers, but creating feelings and emotions for a brand among them, helps foster brand allegiance.
  • Creative ‘brand marketing’ of drugs will appreciably boost the image of the organization, as well, but ‘pharma product’ marketing in its present form, will not.

Pharma ‘brand marketing’ and ‘patient-centricity’ to work in tandem:

My article, ‘Increasing Consumerism: A Prime Mover For Change in Healthcare’, published in this blog on June 11, 2018, deliberated an important point. It was:

If the pharma strategic marketing process is really effective in every way, why is healthcare consumerism increasing across the world, including India?

The focal point of rising consumerism in the pharma industry is unsatisfied, if not anguished or angry patients and patient groups – in other words consumers. There could be various different reasons for the same. But the core point is, contentious marketing practices that pharma players generally follow, is self-serving in nature. These are not patient-centric, and mostly devoid of efforts to create feelings or emotions for the product, among both prescribers and other consumers.

The pharma marketers to keep pace with changing environmental demands:

As I discussed several times in the past, pharma marketers are often found wanting to meet the changing demands of the business environment. This is important, as the general pharma practices of influencing the prescribing decision of the doctors are facing a strong headwind of increasing consumerism, India included. This is slowly but surely gaining momentum. For example, patients in India are realizing:

  • That a vast majority of people pay ‘out of pocket’, almost the total cost of health care, without having even a participatory role in their treatment choice, including drugs.
  • That they no longer should remain unassertive consumers, just as what happens in other industries when a consumer buys a product or service.
  • That they need to involve themselves more and be assertive when a decision about their health is taken by doctors, hospitals, realizing that pharma and medical device companies often ‘unfairly’ influence doctors’ prescribing decisions.

The role and requisite talent required for pharma marketers have changed:

Keeping aside ‘one size fits all’ type of strategy, even if I look at so called ‘targeted marketing’ in pharma, it appears somewhat baffling. It is somewhat like, ‘empty your machine gun magazine at the target with a hope to win over competition.’ Whereas, today’s environment requires making healthcare product marketing, including drugs and services, more personal, and in some cases even individual, like latest cancer therapy. The wherewithal for technological support to move towards this direction is also available. State of the art marketing and product research tools and analytics should be put to use to facilitate this process.

Increasing usage of digital marketing, in an integrated or holistic way, is going to make traditional pharma marketing less and less productive, whether we like it or not. To maintain a sharp competitive edge in this new ball game, on an ongoing basis, pharma marketers will need to keep raising the bar.

Consequently, the role and requisite talent required for pharma marketers have also changed. The new generation of drug marketers will not just be creative, but their creativity will be guided by a huge pool of credible research-based data, avoiding gut-feel. All guesses in this area must pass the acid test of validation by what the research data reveals. Moreover, pharma marketers will need to possess, at least the working knowledge of various digital platforms and possible usages for each of these.

Conclusion:

There is an urgent need to realize that drug marketing is now at the crossroads, pharma players will have a choice, either to follow the same beaten path or gradually make a course correction to keep pace with changing environmental demands. If a company decides to choose the second one, the role of pharma marketers and the talent required for doing the job effectively, will be significantly different from what it is today.Maintaining the status quo in this area, carries an inherent risk for the future success of pharma companies.

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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