Reforming Pharma Marketing

Oct 01, 2012
By Pharmaceutical Executive Editors

Gregg DiPietro
With the Supreme Court's decision in June to uphold the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), life science companies gained access to 32 million potential new customers. While that's worth celebrating, the party may have ended before it began. For pharmaceutical companies to realize the benefits of new healthcare consumers, and to keep the ones they currently have, they'll have to make some substantial changes. And change is never easy.


Until 15 years ago, the model for marketing pharmaceuticals was akin to marketing pet or baby products, in that products were purchased by one person (the physician) and consumed by someone else (the patient). Since the end user had no input into the purchasing decision, marketing efforts were centered on the individual driving the decision—in this case, the prescribing physician.

With the emergence of DTC advertising in the late '90s, this model changed. Suddenly, the patient was thrust into the spotlight as another key decision-maker, and manufacturers had to formulate ways to speak to them. But even then, most DTC advertising led back to the physician, echoed by a chorus of "Ask your doctor if brand X is right for you."

Under the ACA, the target market has become more convoluted. The customer cannot be so clearly defined, and the criteria to satisfy these various stakeholders are disparate at best and conflicting at worst. The physician, patient, and payer audiences remain critical, but a platoon of other stakeholders has been added to the marketing mix. These include administrators, support staff, decision coaches, and purchasing groups, all of whom will be incentivized to achieve better outcomes at a lower cost.

To address these diverse groups successfully, pharmaceutical marketers will be forced to find ways to reach all of these audiences throughout their commercialization process.

Positioning and messaging

A solid positioning and messaging platform sits atop every successful commercial strategy. It forms the basis for how companies seek to differentiate their products, while also guiding the sales and marketing initiatives to ensure total alignment internally and externally. Prior to the ACA, pharma built its positioning platforms almost entirely on two dimensions—efficacy and safety. Since the two most important questions that physicians want answered before prescribing a product are "Does it work?" and "Is it safe?," this approach has proven effective, if uninspiring. After all, not many industries can successfully launch a product on the basis that it works for some percentage of the population and probably won't hurt the consumer.

With the approval of the healthcare law, the conversation has moved beyond efficacy and safety to one of overall "value," which reflects the ACA's stated mission to deliver more effective care at a lower cost. Efficacy and safety are in no way diminished in importance, but they're also not enough to carry a product's positioning platform. They're table stakes for getting into the game.

Additional challenges such as the ability to demonstrate comparative efficacy will only increase in importance as reimbursement is more closely tied to outcomes and performance measures. In fact, the ACA includes funding for comparative effectiveness research estimated to reach $500 million by 2014. That should light a fire under some pharma manufacturers to initiate comparative research studies and take control of their messaging in this area before the government does it for them.

Pharmaceutical marketers must now create a value story around their products based on both clinical and economic outcomes. For example, the ability to connect the dots between fewer adverse events and fewer readmissions, resulting in lower total resource utilization with an attached dollar value will create a far more powerful story to stakeholder groups than data alone. Commercialization executives are realizing this and starting to incorporate health economics and outcomes research (HEOR) in their positioning and messaging matrix. Internal HEOR experts are now becoming integral members of the brand team.

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