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Today’s New Messaging Mix: The State of Pharma Marketing in 2024

Pharmaceutical ExecutivePharmaceutical Executive: May 2024
Volume 44
Issue 5

Industry experts, in a roundtable discussion, explore the evolution of brand engagement in the age of AI, including the growing importance of message relevance—and, for pharma, going where the information is.


Ian Baer, Founder and Chief Soothsayer, Sooth

Andrew Bast, Chief Strategy Officer, Greater Than One

Jay Shah, Senior Slutions Engineer, MMIT

Simon Arkell, CEO and Co-Founder, Ryght

Glen Saunders, VP of Product Management and Strategy, Skipta

John Kenny, SVP and head of strategic planning, EVERSANA INTOUCH

On March 19, 2024, Pharmaceutical Executive held a roundtable event focused on the current state of marketing in the pharmaceutical industry. Experts from across the sector joined to discuss various topics, such as the use of artificial intelligence (AI), the rising number of celebrity spokespeople, and other notable factors that are shaping the marketing side of the life sciences enterprise.

Pharm Exec: What are some of the biggest or emerging trends in pharma marketing right now?

John Kenny

John Kenny

JOHN KENNY, SVP AND HEAD OF STRATEGIC PLANNING, EVERSANA INTOUCH: I’ll mention the elephant in the room, which is AI. I really think, given the complexity of healthcare patient and HCP (healthcare provider) education, AI promises to be really transformative. The opportunity to be able to personalize at that level of scale and for patients to have their own individual concierge accompany them throughout their treatment journey, really is truly revolutionary. There’s a lot of other things we can talk about in terms of AI, but definitely in terms of HCP and patient education, that’s one of the things we’re most excited about.

Andrew Bast

Andrew Bast

ANDREW BAST, CHIEF STRATEGY OFFICER, GREATER THAN ONE: I agree with John on the impact of AI on our industry. I also think one of the biggest efforts that is happening right now, and one of the most impressive changes in our industry, quite frankly, has been the emergence of the obesity [drug] category, which has captured the imagination of so many; It’s being talked about at the cultural level. It’s been a long time since that kind of impact has been happening in our industry.

Ian Baer

Ian Baer

IAN BAER, FOUNDER AND CHIEF SOOTHSAYER, SOOTH: And now here comes Oprah, who will put a lot of spotlight and money behind that. Maybe that’s a good dovetail from the point you were making, Andrew, to a trend that we’re certainly watching and that excites me, which is storytelling. This is a category that has such a history of focusing on clinical data and clinical claims and outcomes, and sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that these are people and families going through these journeys that the relationship and certain health conditions between doctor and patient is quite an emotional one. I think emotional and emotive storytelling is a very important trend, and I’m grateful to see it.

Glen Saunders

Glen Saunders

GLEN SAUNDERS, VP OF PRODUCT MANAGEMENT AND STRATEGY, SKIPTA: I would even say the pharmaceutical industry, in general, has really been accelerating its digital strategies. Traditionally, the vast majority of pharma’s HCP marketing efforts have focused on in-person promotion via the sales reps. And though they have been steadily increasing their digital non-personal promotion over the last 25 years or so, COVID-19 really supercharged it. We’re seeing companies that are trying to rebalance the size of the sales force with new investments in digital and even with the reps themselves. We’re seeing hybrid reps who are adept at handling multiple communication channels, and even MLR (medical, legal, and regulatory) is starting to make progress in getting unstuck from its traditional static ways of working to be more agile and more in-step with digital marketing.

Simon Arkell

Simon Arkell

SIMON ARKELL, CEO AND CO-FOUNDER, RYGHT: The concept of AI is obviously the big elephant in the room, as you mentioned, but the concept of personalization has been around forever. I remember my first enterprise software startup was in the ’90s, and that was being talked about back then. They used to have the personalization conference. What has been a huge unlock most recently is generative AI and the concept that you could not only personalize messages much more effectively, but go down to the N-of-one. Generative AI has the ability to fine-tune models, and the use of specific data that can allow the patient to relate directly and the provider to relate directly the concept of digital humans on top of generative AI, where you can now scale with a lot less people. There was a story recently about a call center company that reduced its staff by hundreds of people because they were utilizing generative AI and these chatbots. But, then, if you put a human face on top of those, it can really change the game dramatically. It’s going to be an exciting future for sure.

Pharm Exec: How is everyone utilizing AI for both content creation and distribution?

BAER: I’ve heard a few people already in this conversation bring AI and personalization into the same sentence, and I would offer just a slight one-click from that point of view. I think the big opportunity with AI is to go beyond personalization and get personal. Simon, I think the point you were raising about that N-of-one and the ability to just not recognize somebody by their name and where they live, their age, and maybe a comorbidity, but actually learn through interaction what makes them tick and be able to adjust their experience and the content they’re receiving, and do a better job of bridging communications between patients and providers. That is often a black hole in the world of marketing communications. There is such a tendency in too many cases to envision the patient journey and the physician journey as separate, but actually they are the most intertwined of any marketing category. I feel like wherever AI can close that gap, that’s a very exciting time for all of us.

BAST: I would agree with that, Ian. One of the most important parts about AI is that it has the danger of being the mushy middle, where it tries to find commonality across all, which would be the wrong approach. The best part is making sure that the humanity is brought into whatever AI is doing. Because at the end of the day, how we react, how we think, how we feel, and how we behave is all personal. We make decisions based from what we know. Most of our patients never went to medical school, and most of them are suffering from diseases for the very first time. They’re learning as they go along.

One of the best parts about AI is to spot those trends, patterns, recognitions, and algorithms that allow us to help [patients] accelerate both their understanding, but more importantly, their agency; to be able to advocate for themselves to become a much more effective partner in therapeutic negotiations. That way, the ones who are living their diseases don’t lose sight of who they are while they are treating what they have. That’s how we definitely want to be using AI.

BAER: I find it so interesting that the examples people are bringing up about what AI can do are all about robots in one way or another, and yet it’s this technology that so many of us are looking to fill in some of those human-experience gaps that we’ve lost over the years of progress and scale and in the age of managed care and managed outcomes. It’s remarkable to think about using technology in ways that make drug companies and healthcare marketers more human.

Jay Shah

Jay Shah

JAY SHAH, SENIOR SOLUTIONS ENGINEER, MMIT: I’ll add to this that AI also has a component of predictability. So being able to help physicians as well as patients understand treatment patterns based off of historical data. I think AI brings a component of where people are saying that they can now predict what might be able to happen in the future based off of patient demographics, efficacy, and all of that. There’s a component of predictability that I think will not only help the physicians, but also help the pharma manufacturers as well to understand what that treatment pattern of therapy might look like.

ARKELL: We’re exploring the concept of interconnected AI across stakeholders in this whole ecosystem. Whether that’s in commercial targeting, clinical trials, etc., you’ve got the concepts of the pharma companies, the providers, and obviously the patients. In the case of clinical trials, the CROs (contract research organizations) as well. If you can identify the different areas of friction or, historically, how these entities have communicated with each other to be able to place AI at each one of these stakeholders in the industry. Then train the AI to take that friction out, improve the communication, and be more personalized. We think there’s a huge unlock and removal of friction that can really create some new incredible outcomes. We’re pretty excited about that because the AI will start seeing things that the tiny, little human brain is not big enough to understand and be able to react with inside these guardrails, and take actions that never would’ve been possible previously.

KENNY: On the flip side—besides what AI can do for patients and doctors—for marketers it is a real opportunity to help them be more productive. A nice example that we’re currently working on is med-legal reviews; whereas this is something that’s incredibly time-consuming and tedious, because it’s very, very data rich and most organizations have a long history of med-leg reviews and how they’ve done, you can actually almost automate this where marketers can now upload new content and instead of going through a lengthy review process, very quickly get it coded red, orange, green in terms of its probability of having issues. Again, as we think about the capabilities of our organizations, being able to reduce the friction and time and costs it takes to get content from marketing organizations to patients and HCPs, that’s really exciting.

SAUNDERS: To add to that point, given the realities of med-legal regulations right now in terms of marketing, we aren’t anywhere near the cutting edge of what your Amazons and Netflixs are able to do in one-to-one personalization. But I think what we can continue to do better is really orchestrating journeys. So even if you can’t have many permutations of marketing messages because each one must get approved, there are many other ways to use data to figure out, at least, the ordering, the timing, and the category of messaging based on patient data, based on the HCP’s profile data, their experiences, and what they’ve consumed. There’s a lot in the pharma industry yet to be tapped.

BAST: I would agree with that a lot, because at the end of the day, while we’ve been talking about AI in terms of the humanity and making sure that we understand the role of humans, we also have to recognize the business end of it. And it’s not just about content generation. We live in a landscape now where the fusion of content, channel, and technology exists. One of the areas that we’ve had our teams at Greater than One build on is because of all the benchmark data that they have in terms of performance and results—and to build out those business models that actually prove what kind of investments it will take and what kind of marketing mix is required.

Our job is to persuade, convince, influence, and cajole, and it’s not always just through pretty pictures and strong words. It is also through the channels, the forms, the technologies, and the level of intensity that we have with which we engage our customers. All of that is now also being analyzed, and we are using AI to do that. It’s this new confluence of the channel and the content, and the technology is one area that we want to make sure that we’re tapping into as well.

Pharm Exec: How are your companies or marketing teams tailoring their messages and content to the individual patients or HCPs?

SHAH: I think MMIT has really done a really good job at personalizing pull-through messaging, especially when it comes to leveraging data. MMIT’s bread and butter is market access data, but over the years, our RWD (real-world data) assets have really helped us move the needle in this space. Gone are the days where you had your printed-out, leave-behind material with regional-specific content. Now, we are in a time where you’re curating that content, and you have dynamic and auto-generated pull-through material based off of claims data, EMR (electronic medical record) data, lab data, and all these RWD assets. That way, if you’re talking to Dr. Smith on the first floor of a building and Dr. Shaw on the second floor, those two messages are heavily curated based off of each physician’s prescribing behaviors and patient demographics; it’s not thesame pull-through template that you’re dropping off at both offices.That helps not only the reps, who don’t have memorize access for the thousands of plans that are out there, but also helps the physicians because they can stay up-to-date through this digital asset. That content is going to be auto-generated and dynamically refreshed in real time because in this landscape and marketplace, policies are ever-changing.

KENNY: In earlier conversations around non-personal promotion, particularly around the HCP, I think traditional salespeople saw that as a potential threat. I think the smarter way to think about it is, how do you center your omnichannel strategy on the sales rep so that they’re more empowered and they know what they’re walking into, they know their paths, and where they are in terms of their journey with the brand? So, thinking of it as a way to empower the sales rep. The sales rep is still an incredibly powerful channel, however, how do we boost the productivity of that? That’s how we’re seeing it being used.

BAST: I ask my team to always think of it from a different perspective because as an industry, we’ve trained all our players to push messages, push messages, and push messages, but we have to think about it on how it’s being received. I use an analogy on flights. I want to know the status of my flight. Is it delayed? I want to know, did I get an upgrade? I want to know what the weather is like. I don’t need to know about Ian’s flight status. I don’t care if Ian made it on time or not. It’s irrelevant to me. While I hope that Ian is having a joyful flight, it isn’t my flight. I want to make sure that my messages coming through are relevant to me. When you put that simple analogy in place and flip it on, how are the messages being received? If it is relevant and informative and persuasive to the recipient, then you’re already advancing the conversation. But if you’re just pushing out a message, you’re actually not making an impact.

SHAH: Oftentimes, what we think about internally is being able to identify that fine line between becoming relevant content versus just spam. We all have that spam folder where advertisement emails come in and we just block it off or don’t even look at it. If you start building the perception that this is the type of messaging that your organization provides, the HCPs or whoever your recipient is will immediately block any of the communications that they receive from your organization. So how do you tiptoe that fine line of making sure that you do push enough content out there to keep providers up to date, but also not cross over to where you start spamming them?

BAER: The journey through diagnosis and treatment is more emotional than it is physical or clinical. Being able to understand where somebody is in their path is important. Also, 90% of all the choices people make are emotional, even if clinical data and symptoms are staring them in the face. We know that in so many disease states, there are people who wake up feeling lousy every day and not doing anything about it. Understanding the emotional barriers that get in the way of care, that’s one of the greatest opportunities we have when it comes to personalizing that experience and being able to inject empathy in addition to the very strong clinical guidance that we’re able to provide.

Pharm Exec: We are starting to see more celebrities in pharmaceutical ads. How can companies of all sizes tap into influencers online to reach target audiences?

KENNY: There are a couple of things going on here, and I think, fundamentally, one of the big issues with pharma advertising is there was recent research done by the University of Chicago where 66% of all DTC media spend by brands ended up lifting the category, versus the brand behind it. So brand attribution starts to become really important. I think we must be honest with ourselves; most people don’t want to pay attention to advertising. What celebrities bring you is, first of all, we’re fascinated with them. I don’t care what survey people say where they want to have authentic real people in ads, we pay attention. The reason why we kicked off today’s call [discussing] the Oprah show about GLP-1s is that we’re fascinated with Oprah. It gets our attention, but also makes it just very easy to recognize, very easy to remember. So in terms of trying to break through, celebrities really do work. I call it the laziest advertising, but it just happens to work really well.

BAER: I have been working across pretty much every category over the course of my career, and I’m not as big a fan of the use of celebrities in other categories as I am in pharma, especially because I do think it can be lazy. I think it can be a vanity play. I think all too often it comes from the desire of a chief marketing officer to be hanging out with an A-list celebrity as much as anything else. Now in the pharma space and healthcare space, we deal with a lot of stigmas in various disease states. I worked in the diabetes category in the ’90s and the early 2000s and celebrities weren’t coming forward admitting they had it. So I remember well when Halle Berry revealed herself to have diabetes. It was a big deal when Nick Jonas revealed himself to be somebody with diabetes. That got people to say, “okay, I don’t have to be ashamed of my condition.” And especially when you get into some of the more stigmatized disease states, seeing somebody who is living what you see as their best life and is embracing solutions to fight a disease that you might not be comfortable admitting you have, that’s a home run for the brand, for the patient, and for the category. So I’m not the biggest fan of celebrity endorsements, but I actually love them in pharma.

BAST: Exactly; Bob Dole destigmatized erectile dysfunction, right? These endorsements can open up conversations which otherwise remain closed. When you think about the four big needs that consumers have when it comes to healthcare, it’s disease, treatment, brand, and then emotional support. No patient wants to be a trailblazer. They want to know about the journeys others have had before them, and get the reassurance that they themselves will be able to successfully navigate this journey, too.

It helps to be able to have somebody of a noted success, a celebrity who’s gone through it, because chances are, even though they have more resources, they’re going to have similar experience. They’ve had similar experiences to what I might be going through and I want to be able to tap into that. But I also agree with John in building out those brand characters and building that equity. Obviously not every brand is going to have Geico-level budgets, but there’s a reason why we remember them that becomes very important. I can’t tell you right now the difference between Lady Gaga as a migraine brand and Serena Williams as a migraine brand, but I certainly remember seeing both of them.

Pharm Exec: Something we’re seeing a little more these days is celebrities spreading misinformation or disinformation, however you want to classify it. So from a marketing perspective, how do you combat that?

BAST: Without getting political, you answer disinformation and misinformation with more information. You can’t bury your head in the sand and become an ostrich. You have to participate in the conversation, get your information out there, and it is okay to stand up for yourselves, for your brand, and for your data and say, “Here’s the truth about it.” The reality is there will always be somebody with a contrarian point of view. The reasons behind it are many, but the reality is you can’t hide from it. You have to be present in the conversation. You have to be contributing to the conversation, and you have to make sure that not only is your data legitimate and not only is your story legitimate, but that they also leverage messengers that are legitimate. And that includes patients, caregivers, and treaters.

KENNY: I think we also have to show up where the misinformation is. Too many pharma brands are still underinvesting in social media, and that’s where this next generation of consumers is spending their time getting their information. Right now, those channels actually have a lot more protections in terms of the brand and a lot more tools in building the brand on those platforms. If the only place you're advertising is CNN cable news, then you have to go where the audience is going. Increasingly, we need to realize it’s TikTok, it’s Instagram. These are the places that pharma brands need to play.

ARKELL: It’s almost as though the TV commercials are just the opposite of personalization. It’s about as shotgun as you can get. There’s probably a reason why [DTC advertisements of prescription drugs] are banned in most other countries of the world, but if you banned them in the US, the whole industry would collapse. Could those budgets not be much more intelligently deployed into microtargeting on social? You want to go to the fishing holes where the fish are, and if you have the data to support that, you’re going to be much more successful. It seems like there’s just huge wastage. We’re all sick of just seeing ads on TV that have nothing to do with us, and that’s wasted dollars as far as I’m concerned.

BAST: Agreed. And the worst part is we, as an industry, have made our broadcast, our linear TV ads look the same—[for example,] walking on the beach with the dog. It has become such cheese that they’re losing the impact of it. I look forward to an ad that actually stands out and doesn’t look like a DTC ad because then it’s like now you’re doing something original, something imaginative, and you’re telling stories in a different way instead of taking the lazy way out.

SAUNDERS: I kind of feel like the pharma industry needs to stand up for itself in the public, even beyond just brands. It was very interesting with the pandemic. I was at Pfizer during the pandemic years, and our brand recognition and positive associations really increased, as did the image of all pharmaceutical companies, at least in the earlier stages when everyone was scared to get COVID and afraid of it either killing you or sending you to the hospital. When the pharma industry was able to band together and there was some cooperation and a vaccine came to market so quickly, that was an event that started to change a lot of people’s minds about pharma just being a money-grubbing, nefarious agent within healthcare. I think that message of what pharma can do, the innovation that pharma brings, also needs to be communicated in order to lift all boats.

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