Blame the Driver, Not the Car

May 1, 2011
Pharmaceutical Executive, Pharmaceutical Executive-05-01-2011, Volume 0, Issue 0

Why is building a successful marketing program so difficult? It should be simple, if your product is worth marketing.

Why is building a successful marketing program so darn difficult? Theoretically, it should be simple—assuming your product is worth marketing. Your customer has a need that your product fills. With the list of human diseases and frailties seemingly endless, our market is filled with opportunities for pharma and device companies to build product pipelines that help prescribers solve many of their patients' problems.

Crashing your car into a tree is a major problem; hitting a pothole is nothing more than a jolt on the way to your destination. So when it comes to promotional plans, sometimes all that's necessary after hitting a bump in the road is a realignment of your strategy to get back on track to meet your goals.

So why is it that in 2009, according to IMS data, 33 compounds were expected to be blockbusters but only 10 actually came through? Or that something like Exubera, the inhaled insulin that seemed like a slam dunk, could be withdrawn from the market for poor sales less than two years after launch?

I offer up that a main problem is one of alignment. Or, more accurately, the lack thereof.

As you enter the launch process, your plans start intact. Your goals, objectives, strategies, and tactics are all neatly aligned. Each part interlocks, creating a tight fit that completes a picture and neatly supports each other. But after running the promotional gauntlet, where it seems everyone from senior management, to the global marketing group, to the FDA is determined to trip you up on your way to launch, your marketing program feels like it's suddenly hit a pothole and won't drive straight. ("Running the gauntlet" is a practice that's been used for centuries as a rite of passage or form of punishment. Lucky participants were asked to run between two rows—the gauntlet—of armed opponents ready to strike from either side. If they survived, they were allowed to live. Sound familiar?)

What Needs Alignment?

Before we talk about how to avoid hitting potholes, let's talk about what needs alignment in the first place:

1) Your product with their need. This really should go without saying, but I can't tell you how many products we've worked on that are fresh out of R&D or Phase III trials yet lack a clear, compelling reason for being. Meeting a prescriber or patient need doesn't mean announcing a miracle cure—but it does mean solving a problem, offering a better alternative to current practice, or at least one-upping the other guy.

2) Marketing's expectations with medical's data. Clinical data form the marketing platform (especially at launch) for most pharma brands. It drives labeling, positioning, claims, and promotion. And physicians can always see through an ad hoc analysis, no matter how good the bar graph looks. The bottom line is you've got to align your vision for the brand with the clinical development plan or you'll miss your mark.

3) Tactics with strategy. The product manager down the hall ran a successful tablet tool sales aid program, your boss is intrigued by your competition's Facebook promotion, and on your last brand you were a hero with an e-mail sampling offer. Stop right there and think: Is there a strategy buried in there, or is this just the digital tactic of the week?

4) Sales forecasts with sales incenties. What gets incentivized gets detailed. So before you pour everything you've got into a great campaign of rep materials, make sure they're getting paid. Don't treat a third-position product like a first-position one, or that great campaign will just end up in a reps' trunk.

5) Marketing with sales with med/reg with manufacturing, and so on. If you're going to succeed over the course of a one-, two-, or three-year plan, you'd better rally the troops well before you start the long march. Give them a clear idea of what you're trying to accomplish, and they may actually put down some of those slings and arrows.

Sounds reasonable enough, yes? Like many things in marketing, alignment comes down to having clear objectives, a clear strategy, and good communication and relationships among your team.

But there's still the gauntlet. So what do you do when sales management wants to try a new incentive plan that takes your product out of the top tier, knocking your detail plan out of whack? Or when manufacturing says the stability data from the trial production batches are unclear and they'll need another six months of testing, ensuring the launch will now happen after the year's biggest congress opportunity? Or when your boss wants you to add a series of digital promotions because he was just at a seminar and has seen the light, sending you scrambling for additional budget? Or, my personal favorite, when senior management raises your forecast and lowers your budget because they believe you are underestimating your brand's potential and are sandbagging the numbers, forcing you into an aggressive launch mode with a slow build plan?

The Big Question

So how do you avoid getting battered and broken and keep your plan from falling apart as you move through the gauntlet? Well, you probably won't be successful in every battle, but here are some ways to bolster your defense:

1) Always keep the customer in the room. Through clinical planning, forecasting, market research, and beyond, keeping a singular focus on filling a customer need can help keep you in alignment. Remember, you're not looking for the next big promotional idea or to help the sales force balance their incentive package—you're looking to satisfy your customer.

2) Align early and often. Too often, brand planning doesn't truly begin until Phase III trials look good. But by that time, it's too late to start asking what the market needs and sizing up the competition. Yes, it's costly to invest in marketing planning too early, but it can ensure you're aligning the foundational aspects of your launch.

3) The first sale is always to your sales force. Your brand's biggest competition could be sitting right in the rep's bag, fighting for detail time with a customer. So one of your first jobs is to sell the sales force on your brand. If there's one thing that will make a sales force run in the opposite direction, it's ambiguity. Stand up at the sales meeting and show them the clarity of your plan. They have to understand it, believe in it, and see that selling your brand aligns with their own goals.

4) Do your planning jointly. Corporate culture is both incredibly team-oriented as well as political, which leaves you with massive amounts of red tape to cut and hoops to jump through. As tempting as it might be to try to avoid it, don't. Work with key players in your organization to set goals and strategies, which helps ensure buy-in (and discourage surprises) later in the process.

5) Lead all your agency partners in the same direction. Hopefully you have the resources to work with specialists in the areas you need—advertising, medical education, PR, and so on. Whether these partners are from one agency network or independent resources, force them to play nice and work together so your brand communications are seamless and unified across channels. And force the teams within the company who oversee these partners to do the same.

Although you're pretty much guaranteed to emerge from the promotional gauntlet bruised and bloodied and somewhat dazed, working hard to keep all the parts of your plan aligned at least assures that the scars you've suffered will be reminders of your brand's success.

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 atopin@topin.com

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