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EAB Member Al Topin delivers 10 questions that should drive your brand-building marketing program.
Similar to the old quotation about war and truth, it seems that "the first casualty of marketing is often common sense." In the heat of a marketing battle, when choices must be made and decisions are filled with risk (career, political, and otherwise), it's common wisdom that often prevails, a product of corporate culture, groupthink, and the we've-always-done-it-this-way syndrome.
Unfortunately, the result of corporate politics, decisions-by-committee, and reliance on past experience means good-old common sense isn’t called upon nearly enough.
The problem is, as you know, common wisdom is often dead wrong. From assertions that violent movies lead to violent acts (not so, says a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research) or that advertising is dead (let's hope not), the fact is that just because you think it's so doesn't mean it is.
Which may be why relying on common wisdom at product launch time can lead you right down a path to disaster. According to Mintel research, a company that tracks many industries, of the 250,000 new products launched each year, 85 percent to 95 percent of them fail. Many of them are from reputable companies like yours, launched by smart people like you. And many are failures, despite growing industry sectors such as Hewlett-Packard's recent smartphone line, the iPAQ. Last year The New York Times reported that in a market that is exploding, Q1 2010 sales of iPAQ were down $57 million from the year before.
So what goes wrong exactly? While there are a million books on the subject and many companies offering to analyze failure for a fee, I suggest the reason is much simpler: We often abandon common sense for common wisdom. Unwritten rules, past experience, unrealistic enthusiasm, and political compromise can dominate corporate decision making. So step by step, meeting by meeting, the simple proposition of launching a product that fills an unmet need gets lost.
Keeping common sense at the forefront of planning can help brand teams ask the right questions, challenge prevailing assumptions, and have the courage, in the case of a potential failure, to call the baby ugly before the marketplace does. And how does that happen? Putting your plan to the following test is a good place to start.
1) Who is setting the sales goals?
While both groups are working toward corporate goals, it can seem like senior management and the marketing/commercialization teams are motivated by opposing forces: short-term commitments to shareholders versus long-term brand building. The result can be a disparity in expectations and disappointment on both sides. A perfectly solid product can be branded an instant loser if expectations are unrealistic or not aligned.
So put on your common-sense hat and take a realistic look at your market, your product, your label, your customer, your sales force, and your marketing budget. Then work with senior management to set goals you can hit.
2) Have you found the "moments of truth" in your target customer's decision process?
As a physician or healthcare professional considers a protocol or algorithm in approaching their patient's issues, a marketer should find where in that protocol lies their brand's "moments of truth." At what point can you influence that script, that purchasing contract, or that patient request? Common wisdom may hold that efficacy data is the critical driver of a new script ... until research reveals that cost has become a barrier. That's a different moment of truth for the prescriber requiring a different set of strategies from you.
Deliver the right message at the right time and you multiply the value of your brand. Leave it to chance and you waste an opportunity.
3) Are you solving the right problem?
Our agency creative brief requires us to answer the question, "What customer problem are we trying to solve?" We ask, because we know that if your brand isn't addressing an unmet need or creating an opportunity, you're the one with the problem.
Common sense helps you solve the right problem. After years of R&D, product development, and clinical research, the corporate pressure to go forward with a brand launch is enormous. But before that critical decision is made, make sure there's pressure from your marketplace as well. Make sure, after all that work and investment, your brand still offers something your customers want and cannot get elsewhere.
But what if your customers don't know they have a problem? In an industry that deals with human lives, caution and familiarity create significant barriers to change. You may be offering a better approach or an improved outcome, but a healthcare professional may see limited value unless you create a compelling need. Can it be done? Of course—with the right combination of education, peer influence, and time.
4) How good is your data—really?
We see this one over and over again. Brand and medical teams fall in love with their data and are sure their customers will feel the same once it gets into a sales aid. But remember, not all endpoints are created equal, and statistical significance is not the same as clinical significance. If you're lucky enough to have input into trial design, make sure endpoints are meaningful and reflect clinical practice. Talk to all the prescribing clinicians, not just KOLs who may be a bit removed from daily practice. Feedback from trial investigators (if you can get it) is invaluable in terms of learning exactly how your brand performed in your target patient population.
5) Have you made your target uncomfortable enough with their current brands to try yours?
Someone once said, "Change will come when the pain of staying the same is worse than the pain of change." Now, that may sound a bit dramatic, but it makes sense: Discomfort is what drives change. And in an industry where patients' lives are at stake, it can take a lot of discomfort for healthcare professionals to try something new.
So, seeds of doubt about current practice must be planted before your brand hits the market. Make customers feel that whatever they're using now isn't strong enough, fast enough, or easy enough—so a switch to your brand makes sense.
6) Will your plan be able to pass the authenticity test?
Does your plan have the ring of truth and clarity? Will your hardened sales veterans see that you have understood the realties they face each day and accounted for them in the plan? Are your positioning and claims credible? Will patients believe your product will improve their condition?
Yes, if your brand is authentic. Interestingly, as skeptical as they can seem, physicians want to believe you've got a great product that will help patients. Sales reps want to believe the new addition to their bag will help them hit their goals. But if you've got data gaps you don't own up to, or product performance problems you're not addressing, or back orders you keep promising to fill, your brand's (and company's) authenticity goes right out the window. Your sales rep ends up all alone in front of the customer unable to answer some very tough questions. And you find your brand trashed all over the Internet.
7) Your tactics are driven by strategies, aren't they?
It worked on the last launch ... The sales force likes it this way ... The competition has one ... We did one last year ... My boss thinks it's cool ... No joke, these are actual rationales we've heard over the years for different tactics.
For example, every company wants to put an Apple iPad in their reps' hands. Yes, the technology is brilliant and seemingly limitless at this point. But before you follow suit, make sure it makes sense for your brand. If your brand is in third position with not much new to say, a leave-behind flashcard may be the better tactic because your strategy is to deliver quick, bite-sized messages for the brand.
But sometimes excitement, the desire for immediate results, and politics win over well-thought-out tactics and targeting. So demand a common-sense reason for every idea, or your team will end up with a bunch of tactics searching for a strategy.
8) Is your plan focused and aligned? Or are you about to jump on your horse and ride off in all directions?
In today's market of limited time and budgets, it's doubtful that you can address every challenge your brand faces equally. Maximizing impact takes a plan that's focused on meeting specific objectives, strategies, and tactics that are prioritized. Otherwise you'll be everywhere and nowhere at the same time. It sounds obvious, but often the fear of not covering every base and including every suggestion makes a plan tough to execute. Focus requires choice and sacrifice. And common sense.
9) Is your team justifying their emotional prejudices with apparent logic?
Frankly, while we would all like to think that planning and marketing is based on solid information and objective judgment, unless you can remove human beings from the planning process, the subjective will always find its way in. And so our detailed rationales, decision trees, and comparative assessments of alternatives all contain shreds of emotional prejudices and apparent logic.
The aim for any marketing team is to be able to talk openly, think clearly, and view a situation from all sides. And a heavy dose of common sense never hurts either.
Which is why you need to stop from time to time, stand up in a meeting, and ask, "Does this make sense? Or, "Are we rationalizing our way into the plan we want, rather than creating the plan we need?"
Case in point: A brand team sees broad use (and big sales dollars) for its new product. They see it used as monotherapy and, adjunctively, potentially as a core therapy for every patient. The market, which operates with its own common sense, disagrees. Uptake is slower and more selective as physicians struggle to figure out where it fits in their armamentarium, and reps are unprepared to help them. With expectations too high and a plan that's too broad, the launch falls short even though the product eventually finds its place in the market.
So what went wrong? The team's focus, justified with research and logic that supported their belief, made them blind to some of the realities of the practicing physician.
10) Can you see how your plan will drive transactions?
In the end, marketing is all about the transaction. The script has to be written, the product needs to be on formulary, and your customers' behavior has to change. It's not about a great sales meeting, or impressing the sales force, or loading the distributor's pipeline. Somewhere, somehow, something has to get sold.
Sounds obvious, of course. Common sense, sure. Forgotten, rarely. But clearly targeted by the launch plan? Maybe not. Take a look at some of the products that haven't made it in the market, and with the wisdom of hindsight, you can often see that somehow, the ultimate transaction got buried in the process.
The customer and their needs must be present in every discussion to keep the transaction top of mind. How will a treatment protocol influence the transaction? How will sales tools help the sales force change their customers' behavior? How can we ensure patient access?
How to put some common sense back into your marketing program
You may start by tearing this article out and asking your team (and yourself) the above questions. Delete some, add more. Keep them on hand during your planning process. The objective is to create a culture that challenges the team to think clearly, talk openly, and look at a situation from several points of view. And, most importantly, to learn to rely not on common wisdom, but rather on their own common sense.
Al Topin is president of Topin Associates, a full-service medical marketing communications company, and a member of Pharm Exec's Editorial Advisory Board. He can be reached at email@example.com