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Future-Proofing Biopharma Launches Requires Personalizing the Customer Experience


As the U.S. economy reopens, engagement with healthcare providers and pharma manufacturers will vary significantly from person to person depending on their comfort level. This article provides insight on how engagement could affect product launches.

As the U.S. economy re-opens, uncertainties about customer engagement, particularly during launch, remain. Even without further waves of COVID-19, patients’ and healthcare providers’ comfort levels with lifting social distancing requirements will vary significantly, and thus so will their engagement with healthcare providers and pharma manufacturers.

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Differences in local government restrictions and experiences through the current pandemic will lead to differences in customer preferences. Many customers who have adapted during the COVID-19 crisis phase to virtual engagement and increased use of digital channels may prefer not to go back to former norms of face-to-face interactions. A recent ZS roundtable with biopharma commercial leaders suggested that most expect 50-70% of future launches to be driven through channels beyond face to face (virtual engagement, inside sales, digital, access support and medical). And customers will prefer to keep engaging through those channels for years to come, well beyond the current crisis.

Impact will vary by launch stage or time to market

Though customer engagement preferences have changed since COVID-19, many aspects of preparing for launch and enabling launch success, such as developing a differentiated product that addresses key unmet needs, have not changed. The impact on launch preparation and execution activities will vary depending on anticipated launch date, with the greatest impact on products that are less than two years from launch.

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Surprisingly, there have been very few delayed approvals thus far in 2020 that can be directly attributed to the COVID-19 crisis. Based on ZS analysis, while some companies have made the decision to delay their launch, we only found three examples of PDUFA delays thus far in 2020 and none of these were likely COVID-related. Most approvals have been in line with expectations for approval timing. Seven assets were approved more than a month ahead of their scheduled PDUFA date – all but one for oncology indications. We expect to see more delays in approvals later in 2020 due to COVID-19 for products that were in earlier stages of development and regulatory approval when the crisis began.

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Most companies, however, proceeded with their launches even during the crisis phase where many areas were under quarantine, albeit adapting to the current environment. Some delayed their launch voluntarily, though just for a short time. Below are examples of three companies that adapted their launches in different ways during the crisis: 

  • Eli Lilly launched Retevmo, a precision-medicine oncology product for non-small-cell lung cancer and thyroid cancer, with a virtual rollout while sales teams were grounded.

  • Esperion Therapeutics launched Nexlizet FDC for hyperlipidaemia after training its field team on digital tools and virtual marketing, with adaptation for local dynamics.

  • Zeposia, a drug for relapsed refractory multiple sclerosis from Bristol Myers Squibb (BMS), gained FDA approval in March, but, in a highly publicized move, BMS delayed its rollout until June based on the best health interest of patients, customers and employees.

As restrictions begin to lift in many areas, the initial effort to plan for a return to a pre-COVID world is giving way to the recognition that customer preferences for engagement through face-to-face interactions or virtual-personal engagement, and through non-personal and digital engagement, will be highly varied and highly unpredictable for some time.

Based on a review of 2020 launches and with input from ZS practice leaders, we identified three over-arching themes for adapting and perhaps “future-proofing” a launch during the current crisis and beyond:

  • Reimagine marketing: Engagement should be based on customer-specific needs and preferences (patients, healthcare providers and payers) including what they need, what they want to hear, when they want to hear it and through which channels they want to engage.  Engage across the customer journey to deliver a coordinated and integrated experience across face-to-face (F2F) engagement, virtual personal engagement (VPE), non-personal promotion (NPP) and digital. 

  • Transform digital and virtual: Use omni-channel engagement and agile dynamic targeting to enable coordinated programs of cross-channel engagement tailored for individual preferences. Equip field personnel with the right insights and information to be effective and engage in the right way at the right time. Reach and support customers to enable a favorable experience across patients’ treatment journey at each interaction.

  • Adapt the field team (commercial, medical and access) size, capabilities, roles and supporting technologies and metrics to enable orchestration of personalized, cross-channel engagement.  This includes hiring, training and compliantly incentivizing.

Enabling and executing on a personalized customer experience goes beyond strategy and requires alignment across most key launch go-to-market strategy and planning workstreams, including: forecasting and valuation, account and provider segmentation and prioritization, commercial organization design, market research and insight generation, strategic marketing, value and access, operations and technology.  

While it’s not easy to shift from traditional siloed engagement models, customer-centric launch strategies will help companies achieve greater success both during and after COVID-19. It moves beyond scenario planning to effectively “future proofing” the launch model for success, regardless of how customer preferences change and uncertainty about when, where, if, or how much we will see a return to normal.

For additional information, visit zs.com/covid19



Ben Hohn and Judith Kulich are principals at ZS and leaders of the Pipeline & Launch Strategy practice. Matthew Furlow is a manager within ZS’s oncology vertical. Swarna Mehrotra is a ZS consultant. Jay Lichtenstein leads ZS’s growth marketing practice.

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