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Are Pharma Marketers Fighting the Last War?


Pharmaceutical Executive

Pharmaceutical ExecutivePharmaceutical Executive-04-01-2019
Volume 39
Issue 4

Despite being the fastest growing influencers in healthcare, ad campaigns targeted at payers are often an afterthought.

Despite being the fastest growing influencers in healthcare, advertising campaigns targeted at payers are often an afterthought


Pharmaceutical companies dedicate billions of dollars to advertising each year. So, here’s the multi-billion-dollar question: are they missing what should be their prime target?

In many circumstances, the level and quality of insurance coverage-more than any other factor-determine whether or not a drug is prescribed. According to the DRG Digital/Manhattan Research Taking the Pulse survey for 2017, only 16% of physicians always prescribe their first-choice drug, while the other 84% usually or always follow formulary guidelines. And just because a physician writes a prescription doesn’t mean it will be filled. An article by CoverMyMeds notes that about 11% of prescription claims are rejected at the pharmacy, and, on average, 66% of those require prior authorization.

Despite this clear shift in influence from physicians to payers, most pharma companies target sophisticated advertising campaigns to the HCP audience while simply repurposing those ads for the payer (as an afterthought) with little or no modification. And, while pharma company finances are proprietary and hard to access, some sources suggest that dollars allocated to access marketing typically represent less than 10% of the total brand budget. It’s a clear case of fighting the last war, when physicians had greater control over their prescribing decisions.

It’s time for pharma companies to focus more purposefully on payer-targeted advertising campaigns in which the message, tone, and visuals are explicitly directed at payer needs, mindset, and culture-campaigns that address the value story head on.  That story can go beyond clinical content to include messaging regarding unmet need, economic burden, impact on population, and cost of comorbidities, as well as the quality and consistency of available evidence.

The fact is, depending on the product and category, payer interests can be far removed from those of providers. On the most basic level, physicians manage patients; payers manage populations. So, while HCPs (and the ads targeting them) focus almost entirely on clinical benefits, payers are also deeply concerned with economics and population-related outcomes. It’s true that the increasing influence of quality measures and value-based reimbursement for providers may begin to bridge these mindset gaps. But, in today’s reality, a hyper-relevant sales pitch to HCPs misses the essence of the payer story.

Of course, basic branding principles mandate consistency across all communications representing a given brand. To maintain brand integrity, payer advertising should incorporate the same approved branding elements (i.e., color palette, fonts, page architecture) featured in the HCP campaign. That way, though the respective campaigns may differ in terms of their headlines and visual concepts, they will still look and feel like companion pieces. 

All payer marketing efforts must reflect the nuanced and changing dynamics of the payer market. For example, continued payer market consolidation opens the opportunity to design initiatives directed toward specific payer accounts. Bigger, consolidated players have more bargaining power with drug manufacturers as well as extra leverage with providers who have an interest in being included in such powerful networks. Many have also acquired practices and pharmacies, further extending the scope of their influence. All of this means that every win is a bigger win, with the potential to impact a larger member population. One can make the case that the stakes for effective communications to these organizations are higher than any that have come before.

Then there’s the continuing move toward value-based reimbursement models, which demands messaging, pricing, and contracting that are grounded in health economics and outcomes research and real-world evidence. Economics could range from the financial impact of delayed diagnoses and hospitalizations to that of comorbidities and downstream manifestations of disease. Any advertising that neglects economic implications is inherently lacking from a payer’s perspective.

And, finally, ad campaigns and other broad communications must be reinforced by optimized in-person engagements-just as in the HCP space. Naturally, personal presentations also offer additional opportunities to reinforce (and amortize) the payer-focused campaign concept.


Amber Gilbert is Managing Director at Cyan Health. She can be reached at amber.gilbert@cyanhealth.com 

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