“Nearly half of pharma industry may come under price control” – was the headline of a media report of June 7, 2017. Although, National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority (NPPA) has apparently denied any such move, the fact is that the number of drugs coming under price control is steadily creeping up, ever since the Drugs Price Control Order 2013 came into force. If this trend continues, the gross profit margin of most of the branded generic manufacturers will also keep getting significantly squeezed, with a varying degree, though.
Coupled with drug pricing pressure in the United States, USFDA import bans from several manufacturing plants in India and dwindling number of new generic drugs ready for US launch, the market capitalization of many publicly listed pharma companies, may go further south. An important example of this situation was cited by Bloomberg, with reasons, in its report of June 07, 2017 carrying a headline “Pharma Woes Axe $14 Billion From Wealth of Once-Richest Indian.”
However, the overall setting is not so distressing for all Indian drug manufacturers, for different reasons. The June 08, 2017 headline of another business news daily stating – “Cadila Healthcare overtakes Lupin as second most valuable pharma company in India,” vindicates the point. The promoter of this company reportedly said, ‘the company expects to receive 40 product approvals in the US in the current financial year.’
Be that as it may, added to these pain points of many pharma players in the country, Prime Minster Narendra Modi’s recent hint on framing rules for doctors to prescribe generic drugs, invites yet another wave of worries for the branded generic drugs players in India, regardless of a solid socioeconomic reason for the same.
Keeping these developments in perspective, collectively, the headwind faced by the Indian pharma industry, regardless of the underlying reasons, is indeed a tough one to navigate through, unscathed. Consequently, the stellar aggregate net profit growth of 41.3 percent in 2016 over 2015, as reported by the 2016 Dun & Bradstreet publication titled, “India’s Leading Pharmaceutical Companies 2016”, could possibly be rather challenging to maintain. Let me hasten to add that a much slower rise in the sector’s largest expense head – ‘raw material expenses’, also helped to achieve this enviable profit growth in 2016, as the report elaborated.
In this article, I shall try to fathom the depth this issue, and the possible way forward.
Areas of laudable contribution by the pharma industry:
For several decades, the pharmaceutical industry has been playing a leading role, not just in offering new innovative drugs, but their cheaper generic equivalents also, as those go off-patent, incessantly, to save and improve the quality millions of lives, across the world. The success of the drug industry is fundamentally driven by innovation – both in the discovery of new molecules and treatments, as well as in coming out with new cost efficient processes to significantly improve patients’ access to innovative drugs, post patent expiry.
Two areas requiring greater focus:
In tandem with these laudable initiatives, two disturbing trends are gathering momentum. One such trend is inadequate understanding of the grave fall out of not meeting with important stakeholders’ expectation on product pricing. As a result, various Governments and other health care payers are coming down heavily on pharma players to make drug prices affordable for the patients.
And the second one is, an intriguing apathy to be innovative in engaging with each stakeholder to take them on board. This can be done by communicating transparently, an easy-to-understand way and a customized way, the major benefits the individual players have been providing to facilitate various public health care initiatives. An apparent disinterest in this area continues, despite the snowballing effect of adverse public perception, and increasing trust deficit.
The core factors driving the trends:
These two trends are generally driven by two core factors – one is external, and the other internal. The external one is related to the general socioeconomic environment, and the internal one is intimately related to strategic business game plans of individual pharma companies.
The discussion will get more complex, if one wants to know whether the traditional pharma business models have a catalytic effect on the seemingly hostile business environment. As I have discussed several times in this blog, what the pharma players can possibly do in the pricing area, I shall not go into that subject yet again.
Nevertheless, what the pharma companies can do in the second area, to achieve their key strategic business goals, is quite different from what most of them are doing or not doing, till date. As we see around, many pharma players, especially the Indian branded generic companies remain engaged predominantly with the doctors, in the form of product detailing, or through Continuing Medical Education (CME) events, or the likes of these.
Today’s newer kind of strategic intervention calls for expert inputs. This is essential to create credible-research-based innovative content, and deliver the same with absolute precision through tailor-made platforms, for effective engagement with each stakeholder. It goes without saying, this should be done in a way that ordinary citizens or netizens can easily relate to.
Relevance of ‘Content Marketing’:
As the traditional pharma marketing is becoming progressively less and less effective, the need for a comprehensive content marketing model is becoming critical for the Indian pharma industry, more than ever before. In this model, useful content will be at the core of pharma marketing
According to the Content Marketing Institute (CMI): ‘Content Marketing is a strategic marketing approach focused on creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and retain a clearly defined audience – and, ultimately, to drive profitable customer action.’
It is possible to make the demand of a medical product, or a caring corporate image, more sustainable through content marketing, as compared to the traditional ones where individual product detailing and CMEs become the centerpieces of marketing strategy.
Why is it so important for pharma now?
According to a Pew Research Study, “One in three American adults have gone online to figure out a medical condition.”
Similarly, PwC Health Research Institute’s consumer survey of 1,060 US adults highlights, about one-third of consumers are using the social space as a natural habitat for discussions on health. More than 80 percent of individuals aged between18 and 24 would likely to share health-related information through social media, while nearly 90 percent of individuals would engage in health-related activities, or trust information found via social media. Around 45 percent of consumers said information from social media would affect their decisions to seek a second opinion.
In India too, increasing number of doctors and patient populations are ferreting information that they require from cyberspace, including different expert websites, online, and immediately when they require those.
Doctors are searching for detail information on different drugs, about their manufacturers, new treatment processes, and required data on clinical trials. Similarly, patients are searching for information in various other areas, such as, different aspects of the diseases that they or their near or dear ones are suffering from, and their effective modes of treatment with cost data, by getting connected online with related patient groups or communities. Even when engaging with the doctors, they often want to cross verify the outcome of discussion with the information available on the Internet. So do the doctors with the information provided by the pharma companies in person.
For example, one such popular website, among many others, is The Mayo Clinic’s Sharing blog designed for the Mayo Clinic community, and includes the following area:
- Sharing experience of patient communities
- Specialist doctors discussing new treatments, contemporary innovation in the health care space and patient care
- Medical researchers and specialist doctors sharing their research experiences
- Discussion on future health care and wellness by the professionals at Mayo Clinic
- Students sharing their experience and perspectives in various areas
Driven by the current digital wave, and the word of mouth publicity to the benefits derived by the doctors and patients through such process, an ever-increasing number of the population is expected to do the same, in the years ahead.
Thus, a huge marketing opportunity in this much unexplored area awaits the Indian pharma players to establish an emotional connect with the stakeholders, including the doctors and patients, by providing all relevant information that they are web-searching for.
Unlike traditional pharma marketing, content marketing is a highly-specialized area – especially for the generation of requisite meaningful and quality data, getting the relevant insight through analytics for innovative message creation.
Moreover, as the current public image of pharma players, in general, is not very encouraging, it may be a good idea to work on various trust building activities. These may include videos on patients narrating their stories or a research experience, and infographics. Thereafter, its delivery through best suited communication platforms, across the marketing channels, followed by constant evaluation of the quality impact generated, will be critical.
Content marketing initiative in pharma should ideally start on a pilot scale and curated to enhance stakeholder engagement level, as necessary, before scaling it up to a national or a global level, as the situation would call for.
A few examples:
Some global pharma players have initiated great work in the space of content marketing. These are aimed at mostly to increase the awareness level and educate patients, doctors, and caregivers in some important and carefully crafted areas. A few examples are as follows:
- Actually She Can (Allergan): on contraception options
- Set Your Sights (Novartis): on vision conditions that a person may not have been previously aware of
- Living Like You (Novartis): on coping with Multiple Sclerosis at its different stages
- Arthritis.com (Pfizer): provides information about rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis
- Quitter’s Circle (Pfizer and American Lung Association): provides resource for those who want to quit smoking and their supporters.
The most predictable part in the pharma business environment is its unpredictability. What is happening today with various large and seemingly invincible players of the recent past, is indeed jaw dropping. Some experts had predicted that the ultimate outcome of getting fixated into mostly traditional business practices in a rapidly changing socioeconomic setting and technology focused environment, could seriously challenge the long-term sustainability of a business.
The major adverse impact on the Indian pharma sector’s overall business performance is primarily driven primarily by the product pricing pressure and USFDA import bans on product quality parameters. Many believe, both these are intimately related to the current business practices of the industry, in general, leading to increasing trust deficits between the pharma companies and the Government, including the public.
The growth engine of the pharma industry is innovation, which would always remain so. Interestingly, in marketing areas no much innovation is noticed. Continuous and effective engagement with all stakeholders is critical now, not just for brand promotion, but also on corporate mission, vision and values, giving solid examples of how the company is making steady progress in those areas. This would help establish credibility in their eyes and take them on board to create a powerful and trustworthy voice for effective brand engagements, as well. It will also encourage the pharma players to ‘walk the talk’, in the real world, always.
The opportunities that a comprehensive content marketing strategy could offer to pharma companies to move in this direction, are phenomenal. It helps to get emotionally connected with all stakeholders, by providing relevant information, including those they are web-searching for, in a more innovative and informative format.
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.