The Permanent Campaign

Oct 01, 2011

Photo: Getty Images / Paul Souders; Composite: Steph Bentz
Historically, pharmaceutical companies have modeled product launches after military campaigns. After extensive planning and product approval, waves of sales representatives would storm physicians' offices under heavy advertising air cover and promotional support to attack fortified competitors and their products. The outcome of the battle would typically become clear within a year.

In contrast, today's product launches are conducted more like election campaigns. Years before launch, companies position their drug candidates and lobby numerous influential constituencies. Early in the campaign, rival companies with incumbent marketed drugs pre-position and attack the new challenger seeking to steal their votes. Promising drug candidates are scrutinized by analysts and media professionals, who monitor and report each trial and tribulation. The drug election is won or lost soon after launch as patients go to pharmacies to cast their votes, heavily influenced by physicians, payers, and other constituencies.

In fact, an IMS study of 79 launch products and other analyses indicate that the ultimate success of a chronic care product launch is determined within the first 10 to 12 weeks after launch. Consequently, companies can no longer wait to battle during the benchmark "launch year," but must seek to win the 'pre-launch years." This paradigm shift—from selection to election of drugs—has fundamentally changed the timetable for product launches. Companies and professionals who grasp this shift and approach product launches like elections are demonstrating dramatic competitive advantages.

Two forces beginning in the late 1990s transformed product launches. The pharmaceutical industry in the US, Europe, and Japan transitioned from the growth stage to the competitive stage of its lifecycle, resulting in fewer new products, stagnant markets, pricing pressures, and greater brand and generic competition. Recognizing the threat of new products, companies with marketed products began attacking launch products preemptively during the pre-launch stage when these new agents were most vulnerable (see graph). In addition, the Internet and other information sources have empowered a larger, more diverse group of pharmaceutical stakeholders—including practicing physicians, patients, and advocacy groups—who can readily access information and form opinions on new drugs long before they reach the market. This is in stark contrast to past product launches where companies targeted an exclusive group of pre-launch influencers, namely key physician opinion leaders, payers, and the media.

Similar factors have shaped the most recent US presidential election campaigns. Regardless of one's political views, these campaigns provide valuable lessons for effectively launching—or counterlaunching against—pharmaceutical products.

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