Today's pharma marketers need to 'sharpen their saw' and embrace innovative customer marketing approaches if they are to flourish in an evermore complex and fragmented NHS

With a drug's clinical story and value proposition increasingly delivered pre-packaged by global headquarters, how can in-country marketers ensure it resonates with NHS customers focused on issues of affordability and services beyond the pill?

To answer this fundamental question – and to coincide with the launch of the 2016 Marketer of the Year competition – PharmaTimes caught up with the co-chairs of its steering committee, Nick Rodger, director of digital healthcare company Incuna, and Sabina Syed, managing director of customer insight consultancy, Visions4Health.

Marketers face a range of challenges and opportunities, says Syed. "Firstly, marketers need to move away from project managing what they are given by global and innovate through customer insight. Companies in the retail space are spending disproportionate amounts of their budgets on gathering insight to find those little nuggets that will help them develop the right tools, services and communication channels for their customers. Pharma is behind the curve here but there is huge scope to engage with customers around the brand value proposition, which include value-adding services that drive value for both patients and the NHS."

A key challenge facing every company is market access, she says. "NHS access issues are going to get worse not better. NHS England has recently announced that it will revise guidance on CCGs around managing conflicts of interest as part of the ongoing backlash against 'big bad pharma' paying for healthcare professionals to attend events. If it becomes harder to interact with certain people within the NHS, marketers will need to look at other channels."

Rodger says that transparency guidance has already had an impact. "CCGs cannot afford to send HCPs to congresses without funding from pharma, yet medicines are becoming more complicated – with biologics and personalised, gene-specific therapies – so they need more information now, not less. The big question is how HCPs access the information they need, knowledge they used to get from advisory boards, white papers and symposia that are getting harder and harder for them
to access."

Marketers are facing such a complex and fragmented landscape that it can be very difficult to know who to speak to, says Syed. "This year brings yet another group of potential customers for pharma to engage with. Regional medicines optimisation committees (RMOCs) will make decisions around medicines that NICE has not yet looked at and drugs that have not been approved by NICE, yet nobody knows what influence they will have, although I believe that Area Prescribing Committees will be doing more medicines optimisation as well as implementing policy driven by these RMOCs."

According to Rodger, we need to abandon the mainstay of marketing for the past 25 years – key opinion leaders. "What we need are advocates, healthcare professionals who are prepared to stand up and support the use of a drug or service because they truly believe it is best for patients and not because they are being paid by a pharmaceutical company. The term key opinion leader is old now."

A new mindset is needed, says Syed. "With this landscape of transparency and within an NHS framework of very limited money, UK marketers need to focus on how to best work with customers and not stick to the traditional ways of doing things. You need to change the game, you need to think 'how am I going to support peer-to-peer exchange and how am I going to enable my customer-facing teams to build relationships?' The traditional key account management model is not working; these teams need to become disease pathway experts if they are to effectively work with these new advocates or new bodies like RMOCs."

No discussion about marketing is complete without mention of digital; here, Rodger sees pharma increasingly competing with non-pharma companies. "There is only a finite time that HCPs are prepared to spend doing activities that take them away from treating patients, and we have new competitors for that time – Facebook, LinkedIn and other social media. What's more, customers are starting to expect personalised information in a similar way to how supermarket loyalty cards collect information on our shopping habits and deliver information that is tailored to each individual. Medics are increasingly being offered the opportunity to profile themselves and get exactly what information they want and it is becoming increasingly difficult to get their attention," he says.

A skillset that marketers will increasingly need is the ability to analyse data. "We need the analytical ability to turn all of the knowledge out there into genuine insight to drive our businesses forwards," says Syed. "We have to start looking at how the retail sector works; okay, they have a lot more scope to do really fun stuff but they analyse the data and act fast. I sometimes think we should be pushing our boundaries harder and asking what we can do within the Code. In some buildings I go into, the marketers are very good project managers who get agencies to do their marketing for them."

Rodger agrees. "It is very easy to hide behind the rules. I know retail and consumer do not have our constraints but they also have to appeal to every demographic, which means dealing with multiple layers of customers and huge complexity. We only have those who pay for a product or service, those who prescribe or dispense a drug or service or those who receive it, the patient. They are the only people we speak to. It comes down to whether you ask for permission or forgiveness; there is a negative mentality that starts with the idea that you can't do anything new but that's not the right mentality for a marketer – compliance isn't your job, your job is to make the best use of the channels available, it is up to others to decide whether it is possible and to help you navigate the intricacies of the Code. Think positively and think, how do I get the information in front of the customer and how can I work with the team to make it happen compliantly?"