Rebalance KOL-Mix As Covid-19 Redefines Pharma Marketing

‘It’s safe to say that 2020 was a year like no other and that 2021 will certainly not revert back to the old normal,’ reiterated the Harvard Business Review Article - ‘10 Truths About Marketing After the Pandemic,’ of March 10, 2021. Amid Covid 2.0, several astute pharma marketers, I reckon, have also realized the same by now. The recent Government announcement on the impending third wave of Covid-19, coupled with slow vaccination pace in the country, further strengthens this possibility.

That said, making all internalize that pharma marketing, and specifically the brand building process will no longer remain – as it traditionally was, may still be a tough task. Mere digitalization of the traditional marketing processes won’t be a magic wand, either, to excel in the rapidly transforming market situation. The task ahead is fundamentally cerebral – ahead of any Artificial Intelligence (AI) tools and applications.

With the market dynamics going through a metamorphosis, pharma marketing needs to be redefined. Capturing the nuances of this redefinition is essential also to ensure the right focus on the right Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs) – for successful branding with long-term image building. Today’s article will focus on this less charted area during the pandemic. Let me begin with a few examples of the redefined areas of marketing triggered by disruptive changes in the current pharma business environment.

Traditional pharma marketing axioms need to be redefined:

To give a flavor of this redefinition, I shall pick up the following two examples from the above Harvard Business Review Article and then zero-in on just one, to explore the recasting and rebalancing need of the KOLs, for business excellence in the new normal:

A.  Technology and human enablement:

Pre-pandemic belief: The right tech stack to drive modern marketing success.

Post-pandemic need: The right balance of factors (including tech stack) to drive modern marketing success.

In pre-pandemic days, focus on “tech stack” was emerging as an end-all game changer for marketing. But in the pandemic days there emerges a need to take a step back. The right approach to human enablement is becoming the key to properly understand the changes and their implications in the pharma business environment. Human enablement includes, making sure that people have the right skills to select and employ the most appropriate environment specific technology tools, effectively. The system should also ensure that the right measurement approaches are in place to motivate innovation and rewarding success.

B.  Relationship building to drive marketing success

Pre-pandemic belief: Relationships matter to drive marketing success

Post-pandemic need: Relationship building is everything to drive modern marketing success

Building relationship with customers rests on the bedrock of trust. Covid-19 has placed a new emphasis on relationships, faced with a near virtual sales environment. New findings indicate, the teams with existing relationships have been able to maintain revenue momentum, capitalizing on the strength of their prior bonds. In contrast, prospecting for new customers has required an evolved set of skills focused on selling solutions, not products, as the Harvard Business Review Article emphasized.

Trust, credibility, and integrity are fundamental to driving market momentum. These are foundational to the value exchange between a company and a consumer. As the Harvard paper writes, this has necessitated ‘a serious recasting of talent to identify people best suited to driving relationships in this new world of online interactions — a world that relies less on charm (and even an expense account) and more on insights and solutions. Trust will be built by and rewarded to those that listen to customer needs and then craft solutions to meet those needs.’

Thus, I believe, in the redefined pharma market, the marketers need to have a fresh look with fresh a pair of eyes to expand and select their KOLs to achieve their business goals – consistently, in the years ahead.

Pandemic impacted pharma’s KOL outreach:

Pharma marketers are well-aware how much they rely on their KOLs in several areas of a brand building strategy, including the creation of widely acknowledged brand reputation, winning key stakeholder trust on brands.  Thus, a robust strategy for engaging with stakeholders – based on KOL inputs, continue to remain an area of paramount importance for drug companies.

From this perspective, as I wrote before, during the early days of national lockdown triggered by Covid-19 pandemic, many marketers felt that in-person KOL outreach activities in physical events have only got disrupted temporarily. As the disruption prolonged, some companies hurriedly shifted online. Others hopefully kept waiting for some more time, and then tried to figure out how to catch up quickly by switching over to a more effective, interactive – and situation-specific contemporary communication channels and platforms, for them.

Marketers require recasting their KOL outreach strategy:

No doubt, KOL engagement remains a high priority area for pharma marketers - for guidance with fresh inputs while charting a new marketing pathway, mainly based on their:

  • Therapy area expertise where the company represents, and the sphere of influence
  • The span of influence to further business progress, gaining stakeholder trust and building brand reputation.

As the market environment and stakeholder expectations have altered significantly, in several marketing related areas, pharma marketers require quickly recasting their KOL outreach strategy, including virtual communication models and platforms. Many may consider, for valid reasons, though, that virtual events may not be as effective as effective as F2F physical events.

Notably, some well-researched digital outreach strategy for the KOLs – tailor-made according to their new expectations in the changing market dynamics, are trying to fetch the best out of them. The new initiative is also improving the effectiveness of virtual interactions manifold, steadily – with the ongoing honing of the processes. However, this would involve fresh mapping, and identification of a contemporary set of KOLs, soon, with in-depth understanding of their needs and interests.

Pharma KOL-mix need to include ‘influencers’ also:

Just to recap, KOLs are experts in their respective fields. Each one of them is also a well-regarded and influential voice, whose expert advice is respected and followed by many others – related to that field. These may include authorities in the same industry, whose opinion or decisions may have significant influence or impact on the business. In that sense, KOLs play the role of influencers, too.

Traditionally, in the drug industry KOLs are selected from accomplished and well-decorated medical experts who are often early adopters of new brands, playing a significant role in the prescription decision of other doctors.

Leveraging two other key roles of KOLs in the changing environment: 

The other two roles that need to be leveraged by pharma companies in the in the changing environment may include:

  • Making more people aware of the critical roles of pharma brands, e.g., what people have witnessed recently with Covid-19 drugs and vaccines.
  • Improving brand credibility and corporate reputation by gaining stakeholder trust. This is usually triggered a favorable word-of-mouth awareness of the role that the company is playing to save and improve the quality of human lives – and, in that process, the livelihoods.

This gets reflected in the most recent annual Axious Harris 100 survey, where two widely publicized Covid-19 vaccine makers – ‘Moderna and Pfizer leaped into the top 10 best-regarded companies in the U.S,’ among all other industries. This clearly highlights ‘Americans love their vaccine makers’. As reported, Moderna ranked third, while Pfizer featured at No. 7 on the strength of its product and innovation scores, nabbing high marks for vision and culture along the way.

‘They’re the first biopharma companies to crack the top 10 in the ranking’s 20-year history.’ Interestingly, Johnson & Johnson, which featured in the top 10 before; this year, it ranks 72 on the list with a reputation score roughly the same as 2020’s,’ the report adds.

KOL outreach needs to be more focused and well-targeted on even niches: 

This is an important need and has been vindicated by Deloitte focus group studies in the U.S., India, South Africa and the U.K and published on May 06, 2021. The studies found that the pandemic did improve overall pharma reputation score with a ‘reason to hope for more.’

However, still many respondents used phrases like, “profit-making” and “harmful”, as reasons of why they don’t trust pharma. Curiously, in the U.S., 29% of people cited “questionable moral integrity of biopharma executives” as a problem. Only about one-fourth (26%) of participants agreed that their trust in drug makers increased during the pandemic, even when Deloitte mentioned vaccine development.

Conclusion:

To mitigate such reputation, trust, and credibility related issues, besides transparency in drug pricing, besides efficacy and safety related research-data, pharma needs to work closely with a wider span of KOLs, who may help in explaining complex science in simpler words.

As the above Deloitte studies bring to the fore, the pandemic could be yet another fresh starting point for pharma to gain long-term trust of customers, and other stakeholders. In that endeavor, a fresh set of KOLs need to be identified through well-structured mapping. This initiative should ideally include, besides top medical and regulatory experts of high repute, globally acknowledged academics, top domain experts, and key members of the government.

Thus, in my view, as the pandemic redefines pharma marketing, there is an important need of rebalancing the KOL-mix of each company, based on their specific needs, especially in the virtual space, as the situation will unfold.

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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