Should ‘Pharma Marketing’ Be In The Line of Fire?

Close to half a century ago, Peter Drucker – the Management Guru wrote: As the purpose of business is to create customers, any business enterprise has two basic functions: marketing and innovation. Drucker’s concept is so fundamental in nature that it will possibly never change, ever.

That innovation is the lifeblood of pharma industry is well-accepted by most people, if not all. However, when similar discussion focuses on pharma marketing, the industry virtually exposes itself in the line of fire, apparently from all directions. This trend, coupled with a few more in other areas, is making a significant dent in the reputation of the pharma industry, triggering a chain of events that create a strong headwind for business growth.

The consequences of such dent in pharma reputation get well-reflected in an article titled “How Pharma Can Fix Its Reputation and Its Business at the Same Time,” published in the Harvard Business Review (HBR) on February 3, 2017. The author observed:

“This worrisome mix of little growth potential and low reputation is the main explanation for why investors are increasingly interested in how pharma companies manage access-to-medicine opportunities and risks, which range from developing new treatments for neglected populations and pricing existing products at affordable levels to avoiding corruption and price collusion.”

On the above backdrop, this article will try to explore the relevance of Drucker’s ‘marketing’ concept in the pharma business – dispassionately. Alongside, I shall also deliberate on the possibility of a general misunderstanding, or misinterpretation of facts related to ‘pharma marketing’ activities, as these are today.

Communicating the intrinsic value of medications:

Moving in this direction, let me recapitulate what ‘pharma marketing’ generally does for the patients – through the doctors.

Despite being lifeblood that carries the intrinsic value of a medication from research lab to manufacturing plants and finally to patients, ‘pharma marketing’ is, unfortunately under incessant public criticism. It continues to happen, regardless of the fact that one of the key responsibilities of pharma players is to disseminate information on their drugs to the doctors, for the benefits of patients.

One may justifiably question any ‘marketing practice’ that is not patient-friendly. However, the importance of ‘marketing’ in the pharma business can’t just be wished away – for patients’ sake.

Way back in 1994, the article titled, “The role and value of pharmaceutical marketing” captured its relevance, aptly articulated:

“Pharmaceutical marketing is the last element of an information continuum, where research concepts are transformed into practical therapeutic tools and where information is progressively layered and made more useful to the health care system. Thus, transfer of information to physicians through marketing is a crucial element of pharmaceutical innovation. By providing an informed choice of carefully characterized agents, marketing assists physicians in matching drug therapy to individual patient needs. Pharmaceutical marketing is presently the most organized and comprehensive information system for updating physicians about the availability, safety, efficacy, hazards, and techniques of using medicines.”

The above relevance of ‘pharma marketing’, whether globally or locally, remains unchanged, even today, and would remain so, at least, in the foreseeable future.

It’s a serious business:

As many would know, in many respect ‘pharma marketing’, especially of complex small and large molecules, is quite a different ball game, altogether. It’s markedly different from marketing activities in most other industries, including Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG), where customers and consumers are generally the same.

In contrast, in prescription drug market customers are not the consumers. In fact, most consumers of any prescription medicine don’t really know much, either about the drugs or their prices. They get to know about their costs while actually paying for those directly or indirectly. Healthcare providers, mostly in those countries that provide Universal Healthcare (UHC) in any form, may also be customers for the drug manufacturers. Even Direct to Consumer (DTC) drug advertisements, such as in the United States, can’t result into a direct choice for self-medication, other than Over the Counter (OTC) drugs.

Additionally, pharma market is highly regulated with a plethora of Do’s and Don’ts, unlike most other industries. Thus, for the drug manufacturers, medical professionals are the real customers, whereas patients are the consumers of medicines, as and when prescribed by doctors.

With this perspective, ‘Pharma marketing’ assumes a critical importance. It is too serious a strategic business process to be jettisoned by any. There exists a fundamental responsibility for the drug manufacturers to communicate important information on various aspects of drugs to individual physicians, in the interest of patients. This has to happen, regardless of any controversy in this regard, though the type of communication platforms, contents used and the degree of leveraging technology in this process may widely vary from company to company.

Assuming that the marketing practices followed by the industry players would be ethical and the regulators keep a strict vigil on the same, effective marketing of a large number of competing molecules or similar brand increases competition, significantly. In that process, it should ultimately enable physicians to prescribe drugs that will suit each patient the most, in every way. There can’t possibly be any other alternative to this concept.

A common allegation:

Despite these, a common allegation against ‘pharma marketing’ keeps gathering momentum. Reports continue pouring in that pharma companies spend far more on marketing drugs than on developing them. One such example is a stinging article, published by the BBC News on November 6, 2014.

Quoting various published reports as evidence, this article highlighted that – 9 out of 10 large pharma players spend more on marketing than R&D. These examples are generally construed as testimony for the profiteering motive of the pharma companies.

Is the reason necessarily so?

As any other knowledge-based industry, effective communication process of complex product information with precision, to highly knowledgeable medical professionals individually, obviously makes pharma marketing cost commensurately high. If the entire process of marketing remains fair, ethical and patient centric, such costs may get well-neutralized by the benefits accrued from the medicines, including lesser cost of drugs driven by high competition.

Further, a successful pharma marketing campaign is the ultimate tool that ensures a reasonable return on investments for further fund allocation, although in varying degree, to offer more new drugs to patients – both innovative and generics.

Marketing decision-support data generation is also cost-intensive:

Achieving short, medium and long-term growth objectives are as fundamental in pharma as in any other business. This prompts that investments made on ‘pharma marketing’, fetch commensurate returns, year after year. To succeed in this report, one of the prime requirements is to ensure that the content, platform and ultimate delivery of the product communication is based on current and credible research data having statistical significance.

With increasing brand proliferation, especially in competing molecules or branded generic market, arriving at cutting-edge brand differentiation has also become more challenging than ever before. Nevertheless, identification of well-differentiated patient-centric product value offerings will always remain ‘a must’ for any persuasive brand communication to be effective.

It calls for generating a vast amount of custom made decision-support data on each aspect of ‘pharma marketing’, such as target market, target patients, target doctors, competitive environment, differential value offering, and scores of others. The key to success in this effort is to come out with that ‘rare commodity’ that separates men from the boys. This is cost intensive.

What ails pharma marketing, then?

So far so good –  the real issue is not, therefore, whether ‘pharma marketing’ deserves to be in the line of fire. The raging debate on what ails ‘pharma marketing’ should primarily focus on – how to ensure that this process remains ethical and fair, for all.

Thus, when criticism mounts on related issues, it may not necessarily mean that ‘marketing’ is avoidable in the pharma business. Quite often, critics do mix-up between the crucial ‘importance of pharma marketing’ and ‘malpractices in pharma marketing.’ Consequently, public impressions take shape, believing that the pharma marketing expenses are generally higher due to malpractices with profiteering motives.

As a result, we come across reports that draw public attention with conclusions like: “Imagine an industry that generates higher profit margins than any other and is no stranger to multi-billion dollar fines for malpractice.”

A similar article published ‘Forbes’ on February 18, 2015 also reiterates: “The deterioration of pharma’s reputation comes from several sources, not the least of which is the staggering amount of criminal behavior that has resulted in billions of dollars’ worth of fines levied against the industry.”

One cannot deny these reports – lock, stock and barrel, either. Several such articles named many large pharma players, both global and local.

Conclusion:

In my view, only pharma marketers with a ‘can do’ resolve will be able to initiate a change in this avoidable perception. No-one else possibly can do so with a total success in the foreseeable future – not even the requirement of a strict compliance with any mandatory code having legal teeth, such as mandatory compliance of the Uniform Code of Pharmaceutical Marketing Practices (UCPMP) that the Indian Government is currently mulling.

I guess so because, after a strong deterrent like mandatory UCPMP is put in place, if reports on marketing malpractices continue to surface, it will invite more intense public criticism against ‘pharma marketing’ – pushing the industry’s reputation further downhill, much faster.

Be that as it may, it’s high time for all to realize, just because some pharma players resort to malpractices, the ‘pharma marketing’ process, as such, doesn’t deserve to be in the line of fire – in any way.

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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