Pharma Branding At Tough Times

“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:

The October 8, 2019 issue of Fierce Pharma featured an article on creating a positive brand-bias with “Prime and prompt” marketing strategies, outlined by CMI/Compas.

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.


‘Free Essential Medicines for All’ – A Laudable Public Healthcare Initiative of India, Tough Challenges Notwithstanding

Recently the Government of India has taken a landmark ‘Public Healthcare’ related initiative to provide unbranded generic formulations of all essential drugs, featuring in the ‘National List of Essential Medicines 2011’, free of cost to all patients from the public hospitals and dispensaries, across the country.

This social sector project is expected to roll out, as reported in the media, from October/November this year with a cost of around US$ 5 billion during the 12th Five Year Plan period of the country.

Considering medicines account for around 70% of the total ‘Out of Pocket’ expenses, this particular initiative is expected to benefit, especially the poorer patients, significantly.

Recommendations of the Parliamentary Standing Committee:

Noting the keen interest of the Government for speedier implementation of this scheme, it appears that the Ministry of Health has accepted the recommendations made by the ‘Parliamentary Standing Committee (PSC) for Health and Family Welfare’ to the Indian Parliament on August 4, 2010, regarding prescription of medicines by their generic names in the Public hospitals and dispensaries, to start with.

In this context, it is worth noting that the ‘Drugs Technical Advisory Board (DTAB)’ has also reportedly considered the proposal to amend the rules of the ‘Drugs and Cosmetics Act of India’ for regulatory approval of all drug formulations containing single active ingredient in the generic names by all State Licensing Authorities.

This recommendation of the  PSC is based on the premises that the ‘Brand Building’ exercise of the generic drugs includes a very high sales and marketing expenditure.

The Committee felt that by putting in place a well structured policy such ‘avoidable’ expenditures can easily be eliminated making generic medicines available to the common man at much cheaper prices. ‘Jan Aushadhi’ scheme of the Government is often cited as an example to drive home this point.

The scheme is new for India, but other countries have already taken similar steps:

Just to cite an example, as reported by ‘The Guardian” on August 23, 2011, the Spanish government recently enacted a law compelling the doctors in Spain to prescribe generic drugs instead of more expensive patented and branded pharmaceuticals, wherever available. This move is expected to help the Spanish government to save €2.4 billion (£2.1billion) a year, as in Spain the drug costs are partly reimbursed by the government.

As a result, the doctors in Spain require prescribing only in the generic or chemical names of such drugs. Consequently the pharmacies will be obliged to dispense ‘the cheapest available versions of drugs, which will frequently mean not the better-known brand names sold by the big drugs firms’.

Product quality of generic/ generics and branded generics:

Drugs and Cosmetics Act of India requires all generic/generic and branded generic drugs to have the same quality and performance standards. Thus when a generic/generic medicine is approved by the drug regulator, one should logically expect that it has met with the required standards set for the identity, strength, quality, purity and potency of the chemical substance.

It is not uncommon that there could be some variability taking place during their manufacturing process and all formulations of both the categories produced by different manufacturers may not also contain exactly the same inactive ingredients.

In any case, both generic/generic and branded generic drugs must be shown to be bio-equivalent to the reference drugs with similar blood levels to the respective reference products. Regulators even in the USA believe that if blood levels are the same, the therapeutic effect will also be the same.

A recent study:

As reported by the US FDA, “A recent study evaluated the results of 38 published clinical trials that compared cardiovascular generic drugs to their brand-name counterparts. There was no evidence that brand-name heart drugs worked any better than generic heart drugs. [Kesselheim et al. Clinical equivalence of generic and brand-name drugs used in cardiovascular disease: a systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA. 2008;300(21)2514-2526]”.

Generic drugs are prescribed more, even in America:

As per published reports, generic medicines account for around 78% of the total prescriptions dispensed by retail chemists and long-term care facilities in the US. For example, in 2010 generic prescriptions were four percentage points more than what these were in 2009 and came up from 63% as recorded in 2006.

Capacity constraints could hold back full implementation of the Indian initiative:

Huge shortages in the number doctors, nurses, paramedics and hospital beds per 10,000 population in India will pose a tough challenge for speedier implementation of ‘Free medicines for all’ project in the country. India should respond to its healthcare infrastructure developmental needs much faster now than ever before to achieve its objective of providing ‘healthcare to all’, sooner.

Overall impact of the scheme:

I reckon, this new scheme will hasten the overall growth of the pharmaceutical industry, as poor patients who could not afford will now have access to essential medicines. On the other hand, rapidly growing middle class population will continue to favor branded generic drugs prescribed by the doctors at the private hospitals and clinics.

Some people are apprehending that generic drug makers will have brighter days as the project starts rolling on. This apprehension is based on the assumption that large branded generic players will be unable to take part in this big ticket drug procurement process of the Government.

However, in my view, it could well be a win-win situation for all types of players in the industry, where both the generic/generic and branded generic businesses will continue to grow simultaneously, because of the reasons as mentioned above.

That said procedural delays and drug quality issues while procuring cheaper generics may pose to be a great challenge for the Government to ensure speedier implementation of this project. Drug regulatory and law enforcing authorities will require to be extremely vigilant to ensure that while sourcing cheaper generic drugs, “Public health and safety” due to quality issues do not get compromised in any way.

How long will it take?

Full implementation of ‘Universal healthcare’ projects takes considerable time in any country. China has taken a long time for its roll-out covering even a larger population than India. Even Mexico has reportedly taken more than seven years for implementation of similar public healthcare initiative.

Thus, I guess, though it is quite possible for India to offer ‘Free Essential Medicines’ to its 1.13 billion people, it may take a decade long efforts for the country to reach out to the entire population.

Are generic/generic drugs really cheaper than their branded generic equivalents?

The recommendation of the ‘Parliamentary Standing Committee for Health and Family Welfare’ on this issue, as stated above, makes sense for India. However, the moot question, which is the basis of choosing generic/generic drugs over their branded generic equivalents, still remains as follows:

“Are the generic/generic drugs really cheaper than their branded generic equivalents in India?”

From the MRPs, as printed on the packs of both branded generic and the generic/generic formulations, it appears that this basic assumption may not hold good universally across the country.

Following examples will vindicate this point:




Batch No.

Price Per Tab.

Telmisartan 40 mg Branded Generic

Telmiline 40 mg

John SmithKline










Brand/ Generic


Batch No.

Price Per Tab.

Rosuvastatin 10 mg Branded Generic







Sharon Bio-Medicines





Brand/ Generic


Batch No.

Price Per Tab.

Cetirizine HCL 10 mg Branded Generic







Ra Biotech

CT 016B




Brand/ Generic


Batch No.

Price Per Tab.

Nimesulide 100 mg Branded Generic












Brand/ Generic


Batch No.

Price Per Tab.

Amlodipine 5 mg Branded Generic

Aginal 5











Brand/ Generic


Batch No.

Price Per Tab.

Ampicillin 500 Branded Generic










As on July 6, 2012

Let me hasten to add, it is quite possible to present another set of examples, which may show that the MRPs of generic/generic drugs are lesser than the comparable branded generics.

However, the bottom-line is, it will not be fair to comment that MRPs of generic/generic drugs, which do not include any expenditure towards ‘brand-building’, are always significantly lesser than their branded generic counterparts as shown above.

Why are MRPs of generic/generics and branded generics not much different?

It is a general perception, as stated above, that ‘Brand Building’ exercise for generic drugs in India includes a very high component of ‘sales and marketing expenditures’ which are built into the price, making MRPs of the branded generic formulations significantly higher than their generic/generic equivalents.

However, it will not be realistic to accept that generic/generic drugs are not promoted at all, in any form, by the concerned manufacturers. The fact is, in case of generic/generic medicines almost the same amount that is spent on ‘sales and marketing’ for branded generic drugs, is passed on to the retail chemists by their manufacturers as huge incentives for promotion and substitution of such drugs by the respective pharmacies.

Thus, in a large number of cases the patients do not get any significant pricing benefit for buying generic/generic drugs against doctors’ prescriptions instead of branded generics from the retail outlets. 


In the prevailing scenario, the decision of the Government to procure and distribute only the generic/generic essential medicines through public hospitals/dispensaries simply on pricing ground, keeping the branded generics at bay, is indeed intriguing.

From the data presented above, it will be quite reasonable to believe that MRPs being similar, the ‘sales and marketing’ costs for branded generics are quite comparable to hefty discounts being passed on to the wholesalers and retail chemists by the manufacturers of generic/generic drugs.

Hence, in the balance of probability, a branded generic product can well compete with its genuine generic/generic equivalent, even on pricing ground, in the government procurement process.

Thus, to be fair to the pharmaceutical companies, across the board, the government should invite all generic manufacturers selling their products with or without brand names to participate in the public procurement process and thereafter make the final purchase decisions based on well laid out and transparent criteria, which can stand scrutiny of the strictest audit. 

That said, I fully recognize that the participation in the public procurement process of essential medicines, will indeed be the business decision of individual  companies. If it makes commercial sense, there is no reason why large companies, including the multinationals, will not participate in this laudable project of the Government.

The record of the Government in the implementation of various social sector projects, thus far, may not be brilliant by any measure. Despite that, it does make enough sense for all of us to be rather optimistic about this well hyped ‘Free Essential Medicines for all’ project of India, considering the immense benefits that the common man will derive out of it.

For the effective implementation of the project, the government should now get adequately prepared with required wherewithal, put in place world class skill-sets by partnering with private domain experts wherever required and chart the pathway of success with clearly assigned accountability to each individual responsible for translating this grand ‘Public Healthcare’ initiative of India into reality .

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.