Position, position, position

The "weekender," the "doughnut hole," and the secret art of "bathroom mapping": How pharma marketers are learning to tell new stories for every phase of a drug's lifecycle.
Aug 01, 2005

With each passing year, Pharmaceutical product positioning begins earlier in the development cycle, continues longer, and responds to more market variables than ever before. From the views of key opinion leaders (KOLs) in the early development stage, to the ad campaigns that mark an expired patent's over-the-counter debut, products must fit tightly defined niches in complex markets. Strategies in each new phase in the positioning process depend on factors like cost (really, the availability through HMOs and Medicare), similar drugs in a manufacturer's portfolio, and the self-image of patients, among others.

Climbing Stories
But for everything new in product positioning, some elements remain as important now as they were decades ago. Then and now, positioning has more to do with consumers' attitudes toward a product than with the product itself. The basic ideas of product positioning were developed more than 30 years ago by marketing consultants Al Ries and Jack Trout. Regarded as pioneers today, they coined the modern notion of marketing "warfare" and, in the 1970s, began thinking about product positioning as "the battle for your mind."

How target customers think and feel about a product, Ries and Trout maintained, will determine their behavior—what they buy and consume, and ultimately the kind of market share the brand wins. Because positioning drives strategy and helps determine what communications materials are created, it is central to the success of the brand. Positioning couples the understanding of the marketplace (including customers and customer segments) with the appreciation of the product (including its competitors) and guides the development of the marketing message.

Global Positioning Strategies Fail
Historically, the "positioning" of a pharmaceutical product was a fairly simple one-shot deal. Approximately 12 to 18 months before the introduction of a new product, a team involving product management, the advertising agency, and the marketing research specialists would decide what aspects of a product were most likely to be perceived positively by physicians. They framed these claims into concept statements, and tested the statements with doctors to find which resonated best. The winner was then chosen as the brand's positioning and used as the integrating theme for the product launch and subsequent communications.

Such an approach worked fairly well when pharmaceutical companies produced a constant stream of genuinely new chemical compounds. But these days, drugs with genuinely different chemical structures are extremely rare. Worse yet for marketers, the pharmaceutical promotional channels jangle with a confusing clamor of competing products, while third-party payers exert a growing influence on drug selection.

Cutting through this confusion starts with a return to basics, the orthodox Ries and Trout definition of product positioning: literally, where we want the product to be placed in the minds of our customers, after all is said and done. But circumstances may change substantially in the competitive environment, so where we want the product to be in the minds of our customer may not remain a constant.

Starting Early

Pharmaceutical marketers are beginning to focus on product positioning earlier in the clinical development stages. In cancer therapy and central nervous system treatments, for example, where compounds frequently have multiple indications, marketing research can determine which indications will lead to the most prescriptions based on current need.

Knowing where the positioning strategy is headed can help manufacturers prioritize their clinical trials. GlaxoSmithKline's Paxil (paroxetine), for example, started life as an antidepressant, but has sequentially added social anxiety disorder and panic disorder as indications. Pfizer's Geodon (ziprasidone) was launched as an antipsychotic, and more recently gained an indication for bipolar mania. When chemotherapeutic agents effectively treat different types of cancer, marketing research can help with tumor prioritization, which yields important information about the most profitable order in which to conduct clinical trials.

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