What Pays More: Creating ‘Innovative ‘Customer Experience’ Or ‘Innovative Drugs’?

More innovative a drug is, the better is its business success rate. This was the general perception of around 92 percent pharma professionals in the past three years. Whereas the fact is: ‘Having the best product doesn’t guarantee sales anymore’. This was established by a research study of the ‘Bain & Company’ - covering multiple therapeutic areas, and was published on October 14, 2019.

It showed, when physicians prescribe a drug – its efficacy, safety and side-effect profile initially account for only 50 percent to 60 percent of the physician’s choice, with a declining trend over time. Interestingly, the other 40 percent to 50 percent of it, is based on a range of ‘physician and patient experience factors’, which pharma players need to target in innovative ways to differentiate their brands.

Many pharma companies are now experiencing the harsh reality that more innovative drugs, backed by traditional sales and marketing support are not yielding desirable financial returns. Head scratching has already started among astute pharma professionals to understand its reason for remedial measures. Thus, the number of executives who agreed with the above ‘Bain & Co’ study that: ‘Having the best product doesn’t guarantee sales anymore,’ increased to almost fourfold – from 8 percent to 28 percent in the next three years.

Thus, in this article, I shall explore whether innovation in creating a ‘unique patient experience’ during a disease treatment process, is as important, if not more than a ‘new drug innovation’. Curiously, high failure rate of most pharma players to innovate in this area, isn’t discussed as much as high failure rates in the development of innovative new drugs.

‘Customer service’ innovation – high failure rate – falling short of expectations:

Again, another article - ‘How Agile Is Powering Healthcare Innovation,’ published by ‘Bain & Company’ on June 20, 2019, brought out some interesting points related to this area. Let me quote a few of which as follows:

  • 65 percent of ‘customer-service innovation’ fall short of expectations of the target group.
  • The number of health care executives recognizing the need to respond quickly to changing customer-needs, has increased from 38 percent in the past three years to 60 percent for the next 3 years. But, most of them ‘lack the methodology, and even the language to implement it in practice.’
  • ‘Having the best product doesn’t guarantee sales anymore.’ Thus, healthcare companies face growing pressure to innovate in providing unique ‘customer experience’.
  • The critical point to note, customer needs evolve continuously, and leading companies respond rapidly with innovative new solutions catering to changing market demand.

As the core purpose of working for ‘customer-service innovation’ is linked with creating ‘brand loyalty’, let’s have a quick recap on ‘brand loyalty’ really means for pharmaceutical products, in today’s context.

‘Brand loyalty’ for pharmaceutical products in modern times:

There are many similar definitions of ‘brand loyalty’ for a pharmaceutical product. The research article – ‘Brand Loyalty as a Strategy for the Competition with Generic Drugs: Physicians Perspective,’ published in the Journal of Developing Drugs, on August 30, 2016, defined ‘brand loyalty,’ and articulated its advantages.‘ I am paraphrasing a few of which, as below:

  • The extent of the faithfulness to a particular brand, which is a major indicator of a long-term financial performance of companies.
  • The main advantages of brand loyalty can be defined as greater sales and revenue, a substantial entry barrier to competitors, increase in a company’s ability to respond to competitive threats and lower consumer price sensitivity.
  • ‘Brand loyalty’ can protect against price competition, including branded generics, as it gives confidence to physicians on the perceived effectiveness and safety of a brand – which they usually won’t be willing to compromise with for lower prices.

This brings us to a key question. Are traditional pharma methods of creating ‘brand loyalty’ getting replaced by the key consideration of creating a ‘unique customer experience’?

Creating ‘brand loyalty’ through ‘patient loyalty’ – a new equation:

It’s a fact today that traditional pharma methods of creating ‘brand loyalty’ is getting replaced by the key consideration of creating a ‘unique customer experience.’ This, in turn, is increasing the need of building ‘patient loyalty’, both for a pharma brand, as well as respective companies offering these brands. This is a new equation, where offering a ‘unique treatment experience’ to patients assumes a critical role more than ever before. This needs to be clearly understood by today’s pharma marketer, without any ambiguity.

In traditional pharma marketing, physicians remain, virtually, the sole focus of the branding exercise, as they appear to be the only decision makers of writing a brand prescription. Patients, in general, hardly used to have any role to play in that process. In this scenario, brand loyalty for the doctors – assuming the absence of any malpractices, is primarily driven by the following three much known factors:

  • Physicians’ unprejudiced buying-in a brand’s value offerings
  • Evaluation of opinion leaders and the doctors’ professional counterparts,
  • Quality of disease treatment outcomes.

Nevertheless, before getting into this area, let’s have a quick look at the primary drivers that pharma marketers have been using to boost financial performance of a brand.

Traditional sales boosters of a pharma brand:

The primary drivers that pharma marketers have been using to boost financial performance of a brand can broadly be classified as follows:

  • Multiple ways are followed to make important doctors write more prescriptions,
  • Increase the drug price, whenever an opportunity arises.

These factors still remain important, but aren’t just enough to deliver sustainable performance over a period of time. Thus, a new dimension needs to be added to it.

Add a new dimension to create brand and corporate loyalty:

With the emergence of increasingly more informed and demanding patients, there is a need to create a ‘loyal patient population’, by offering them primarily a ‘unique treatment experience’. And this is the new dimension.

For this purpose, off-the cuff approaches or strategies based on mere gut-feelings are unlikely to work. As I indicated in one of my articles, marketers need to acquire deep insights on their customers to make sales and marketing decisions more informed, than what it is today. Currently available state of the art technology can be a great enabler to facilitate this process.

This is easier said than done, because answering the question – how does a drug company create ‘brand loyalty’, is indeed a tough call. Nonetheless, many different industries have realized, since long, that offering a ‘unique customer experience’, is critical to create a pool of ‘loyal customers’.

I also had written earlier, pharma is still a late learner in accepting various new normal, in a holistic way. Accepting this reality, a sharp focus on creating ‘brand loyal doctors’ in various innovative ways, I reckon, will serve this purpose well. It’s only recently, a few companies have started working to offer such ‘experience’ to patients in the disease treatment process - end-to-end. Ironically, a large majority of them prefer to talk about it more than actually translating the same into reality.

Benefits of ‘brand loyalty’ through ‘unique customer experience’:

There are several advantages of building pharma ‘brand loyalty’ by offering ‘unique customer experience, without diluting the focus on ‘increasing prescription generation through doctors’. The benefits, I reckon, include, both new – innovative products and also branded generics. Let me give below one example of each:

  • Innovative new-products – positive word-of-mouth promotion: Satisfied patients having ‘unique end-to-end treatment experience’ with a new, innovative brand, are very likely to share it with others. This may be done by using different modes of communication, including various social-media platforms. This, in turn, may help both – add to take-off speed – post launch and create a snowballing impact on the brand adoption thereafter.
  • Branded generics – extend the product life cycle and increase growth: Patients who are loyal to a particular branded version of a generic molecule, are quite likely to refuse any change to a cheaper equivalent, even if recommended by the physician. Moreover, they will advocate for this brand to others, using different communication platforms, as indicated above. Continuation of this process will extend the life cycle of the branded-generic, with increasing growth and market share.

Conclusion:

Now, it’s time to get back to what we started with - What pays more: Creating ‘Innovative ‘Customer Experience’ Or ‘Innovative Drug?’ From the above perspective, it emerges that bringing innovative product to markets is, of course important. However, to ensure its sustainable financial success, other innovations, such as creating ‘a unique end-to-end patient experience’ with the brand, in all probability, would weigh more. This is an area which did not receive much attention for a long time, moving beyond the creation of increasing numbers of ‘brand loyal’ doctors, for business success.

Today, increasing consumerism in the health care space, besides pricing pressure, unfavorable perception and sinking image of the industry, is creating a strong headwind – impeding desirable growth of many pharma players. Such a challenging business scenario has prompted a few of them to innovate in designing a differentiated ‘customer experience’ – in a true sense.

Although, a large number of companies are talking about it, most are mere lip-services – a ground-swell in this area is yet to take place. The industry priority, in general, still weighs heavily in developing innovative products, and creating ‘brand loyal’ doctors, rather than cultivating ‘brand loyal patients’, alongside.

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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