The Stakeholder-Mix Has Changed, But Pharma Marketing Has Not

“We try never to forget that medicine is for the people. It is not for profit. Profits follow, and if we have remembered that, they never fail to appear.”

In 1952, George Wilhelm Herman Emanuel Merck, the then President of Merck & Co of the United States said this. He was then aptly quoted on the front cover of the ‘Time Magazine’, epitomizing his clear vision for the company: “Medicine is for people, not for the profits”.

The globally acclaimed Management Guru – Peter F. Drucker had also clearly articulated in his management classics that, “Profit is not the purpose of business and the concept of profit maximization is not only meaningless, but dangerous.” He further said, “There is only one valid purpose of a business, and that is to create a customer” 

As this is an ongoing process, in the pharma perspective, it may be construed as ensuring access to new drugs for an increasing number of patients.

It really worked: 

In those days, driven by such visionary leadership, the pharma used to be one of the most respected industries and Merck topped the list of the most admired corporations in America. It is clear that pharma leadership at that time wanted to make ‘inclusive growth’, both in the letter and spirit, as an integral part of the organizational progress, moving with time.

Thus, it worked. The sales and marketing growth of the global drug industry at that time was not lackluster, either, in any way. The R&D pipeline of the drug companies used to be also rich, with regular flow of breakthrough new products too. 

Straying away from ‘inclusive’ to ‘self-serving’ strategies:

Much water has flown down the bridges, since then, so is the change in the public and other stakeholders’ perception about the pharma industry, in general. 

Sharply in contrast with George W. Merck’s (Merck & Co) vision in 1952 that “Medicine is for people, not for the profits”, in December 2013 the global CEO of Bayer reportedly proclaimed in public that: “Bayer didn’t develop its cancer drug, Nexavar (sorafenib) for India but for Western Patients that can afford it.” 

It appears that the focus of the pharma industry on ‘inclusive growth’ seems to have strayed away to ‘self-serving growth’, with the passage of time. As a result, a large majority of the new stakeholders started harboring a strong negative feeling about the same industry that continues its active engagement with the very same business of developing new drugs that save many precious lives. 

Granted that the business environment has changed since then, with increasing complexities. Nonetheless, there does not seem to be any justifiable reason for straying away from ‘inclusive growth’ strategies.                                         

As are regularly being reported, both in the global and local media, mindless arrogance on fixing exorbitant high new drug prices severely limiting their access, unabated malpractices in drug marketing and escaping with hefty fines, releasing only favorable clinical trial data, just to mention a few, are giving the industry image a strong tail spin.

Stakeholders changed, but pharma marketing did not:

Keeping the same strategic direction and pace, overall pharma brand marketing strategy also continued to be increasingly ‘self-serving’, and tradition bound. Success, and more success in building relationship with the doctors, whatever may be the means, is still considered as the magic wand for business excellence, with any pharma brand. Thus, since over decades, building and strengthening the relationship with doctors, continue to remain the primary fulcrum for conceptualizing pharma marketing strategies. 

It does not seem to have not dawned yet for the pharma marketers, that over a period of time, the market is undergoing a metamorphosis, with several key changes, and some of these would be quite disruptive in the traditional pharma marketing ball game. Consequently, the above key the fulcrum of pharma marketing is also gradually shifting, slowly but surely.

In this article, I shall deliberate only on this area.

A new marketing paradigm:

The key customer in the pharma business is no longer just the doctors. That was the bygone paradigm. The pharma stakeholders’ mix is no longer the same as what it used to be. 

The evolving new paradigm constitutes multitude of important stakeholders, requiring a comprehensive multi-stakeholder approach in modern day’s pharma marketing game plan.

Patients, governments, policy influencers, health insurance providers, hospital administrators, social media, and many others, have now started playing and increasing role in determining the consumption pattern of pharma brands, and their acceptability. More importantly, these not so influential stakeholders of the past, are gradually becoming instrumental in building overall pharma business environment too. This necessitates customized engagement strategy for each of these stakeholders, with high precision and relevance.

Changing mindset is critical: 

An effective response to this challenge of change, calls for a radical change in the marketing mindset of the top pharma marketers. The most basic of which, is a strong will to move away from the age old ‘one size fits all’ and ‘self-serving’ initiatives with some tweaking here or there, to a radically different ‘inclusive marketing’ approach.  In this game, both the types and the individual customer concerned, would occupy the center stage for any meaningful interactions on the brands and associated diseases, besides many other areas of relevance.

Multi-stakeholder Multi-channel approach:

For a multi-stakeholder customized engagement, innovative use of multiple channels would play a crucial role, more than ever before.

Availability of state of the art digital tools, would facilitate crafting of comprehensive marketing strategies, accordingly. For example, for the doctors, some companies are moving towards e-detailing.

As I discussed in my article in this Blog titled, “e-detailing: The Future of Pharmaceutical Sales?” on September 13 2013, this modern way of interaction with the doctors is fast evolving. E-detailing is highly customized, very interactive, more effective, quite flexible, and at the same time cost-efficient too. Live analytics that e-detailing would provide instantly, could be of immense use while strategizing the game plans of pharmaceutical marketing.

A feel of the changing wind direction:

A relatively new book titled, “Good Pharma: How Marketing Creates Value in Pharma”, published in March 2014, and written by Marcel Corstjens, and Edouard Demeire, well captures some of the key changes in the pharma industry with a number interesting examples. 

The above book seems to somewhat respond to Ben Goldacre’s bestselling book ‘‘Bad Pharma: How Drug Companies Mislead Doctors and Harm Patients’, which I discussed in this blog on October 15, 2012.  It made some important observations in many areas of pharma business. I am quoting below just a few of those incoming changes to give a feel on the urgent need of recasting the marketing models of the pharma industry:

On emerging markets’ like India:

“Emerging markets should not be seen as low-hanging fruits. Their prevalence of diseases may not be the same, the stakeholders may be very different. In addition, the healthcare infrastructure is often not very sophisticated, and these markets can be rather volatile and difficult to predict. It’s not a sure bet; you have to invest. … Companies need to commit seriously to building a heavily localized approach that is substantiated by a global reputation.” This is perhaps not happening in India, to a large extent, as I reckon.

On personalized Health Care (PHC): 

The new drugs brought to market by the pharma companies are not just expensive, but often work only for small segments of the patient population. In India this situation mostly leads to very high out of pocket expenditure, which often is wasted for the drug not working on the patient. Thus, the regulators and payers in the developing countries are setting the threshold for higher reimbursement. The authors observed that PHC is now being put forward as the industry’s best bet for satisfying stricter effectiveness criteria, not only by developing new drugs, but also by investing in the magical trio of the future: “drug-biomarker-diagnostic. In that case, pharma marketing would need to undergo a significant change, starting from now.

On ‘Category captains’:

The book also says, “The most financially successful companies in the past 20 years has been Novo-Nordisk. They have specialized in diabetes, they’re extremely good at that. Roche specializes in oncology. The larger the company, the more ‘captive’ areas they can have. The success of Novo-Nordisk, a relatively small company, proves firms of all sizes have a chance to compete, as long as they stick closely to their strengths. When this happens in a much larger scale, pharma marketing would also be quite different and more focused.

Many pharma companies are still avoiding to change, successfully. For example, as announced on May 31, 2016, Intercept Pharma of the United States announced its new liver disease drug with a hefty price tag of US$ 70,000 a year. According to the report, the company said, prices are justified by a drug’s level of innovation and cost savings for the healthcare system. This justification has now become very typical in the pharmaceutical world, which has been facing barrage of criticisms, including from Capitol Hill, about too-high drug prices.

However, as we move on, the writing on the wall seems to be very clear on the sustainability of health care business, the world over.

Conclusion:

Finally, the question arises, would the traditional approach still be good enough to achieve the desired sales and marketing objectives, any longer?

No, probably not, I reckon. With changed mindsets, ‘getting under the skin’ of each stakeholder, separately, would assume key importance. It would play a key role, while devising each component of any cutting-edge pharma sales and marketing strategy, tactic, and task.

The shift from the old paradigm, signals towards a total recast of pharma marketing to make it more ‘inclusive’, and not just ‘self-serving’. Newly crafted commensurate grand marketing plans and their effective implementation should satisfy the needs and wants of all stakeholders, simultaneously. Singular focus on building, or further strengthen the relationship with prescribing doctors, won’t be adequate enough, anymore.

Thus, the name of the new pharma ballgame would again be ‘inclusive marketing for inclusive growth’.

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.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.