There’s ever-increasing menu of tools, technologies and tactics to choose from, but is pharma ready to innovate?

Think pharmaceutical marketing these days and the buzz words digital, consumer engagement, multichannel, and closed-loop all come to mind. There is now a dizzying array of tools, technologies and tactics that can be combined in various permutations to create marketing campaigns unheard of a mere five to 10 years ago. Add to this the shift to specialty medicines, the need to demonstrate value, as well as the rise of the engaged patient, and pharma has one complex marketing landscape on its hands.

The changing environment hasn’t lessened the need for marketing, but what’s clear is it’s a different type of marketing to the ‘old days’. Jeannie Joughin, vice president corporate development at device manufacturer Enable Injections, explains that marketing in all sectors is undergoing a “major digital transformation” as people turn to Google and smartphones. And pharma has responded – albeit slowly. But is it playing it safe with the smorgasbord of marketing opportunities on offer?

“Many companies have retained ‘traditional’ methods based around journal advertising and salesforce promotion, and most have evolved to the use of iPads/digital campaigns incorporating a ‘closed loop’ element,” says Karen Bell, director of business development at Ashfield (part of UDG Healthcare) in the UK. But, she adds, in terms of actual innovation in the marketing space, it’s unfortunately limited to a few areas or companies.

Both Bell and Joughin acknowledge pharma has been slow to react to digital in comparison with other sectors. And even pharma acknowledges it isn’t up to speed with developing multichannel marketing. According to Sarah Rickwood, vice president European thought leadership at QuintilesIMS, European pharma companies consistently say, on a scale of one to four, that they are only at a one or two in terms of multichannel maturity. When looking at the digital share in pharma communications to doctors, QuintilesIMS found that Japan is the most advanced, followed by the USA, with Europe lagging behind.

There are numerous excuses for pharma’s snail’s-pace take-up of innovation, from strict codes of practice and siloed thinking to concerns about return on investment and a lack of mindset within the industry to embrace change. But as Joughin notes, the traditionally predominant tools of sales representatives and direct marketing are on the decline, putting pressure on the industry. “As sales and marketing teams’ freedom to manoeuvre decreases, their efficacy must increase – something that can only be achieved by transformation in the application of technologies, tools and tactical execution.” Indeed, Rickwood says the industry needs to ask itself if it’s evolving at the speed required. “The drop in doctor’s calls is a signal that things need to change faster now.”

The problem is there’s an awful lot of tools, technologies and channels to choose from – and new trends are developing all the time, like chat apps (think WhatsApp and Snapchat) and live video. “The interaction of doctors and sales reps is still important,” explains Rickwood. “But it’s not the only choice. Getting the choice right for engagement is more important now than in the past.”

Pharma’s experimentation with digital channels to date has been, well, ‘interesting’. Bell says there is a minority of companies that have well-developed digital strategies, though “many companies are now experimenting with various aspects of digital, varying from digital campaigns to e-detailing pilots but for many the jury is still out as to how effective the digital channel is compared with the field sales representative”. Indeed, there are numerous cases where poor design and execution have led to digital campaigns being an expensive waste of time.

Jumping on the app bandwagon is one example. Now the market for health apps is bewilderingly diverse, creating a challenge for anyone patient enough to sift through to find the ones of value. According to Rickwood, the number of health apps actually heavily downloaded and used is very small, showing the reality that most health apps haven’t met expectations. However, there is light at the end of the app tunnel and Rickwood says there is something of a reassessment currently in the app space, which she expects pharma to be part of.

‘Convenience and relevance – get these right and you’ll get the engagement part’

One area in digital that pharma is focusing its sights on and which is gaining traction is the virtual rep, says Liz Murray, senior director of multichannel strategy at QuintilesIMS. This essentially allows the doctor to have a rep call online at a time convenient for them, with access to additional information via digital links. Murray says a majority of companies are exploring this, adding that it makes sense given that the doctor/rep relationship is already well-established, it’s something pharma knows and it’s something doctors consistently want.

Some people might argue that pharma’s disjointed approach to marketing innovation today comes down to a lack of talent in the industry. Bell agrees there is some truth in that when there is an excess of “traditional” marketers and often a recruitment requirement to have previous pharma marketing experience. A number of agencies, too, haven’t moved with the times. But Murray believes there are a lot of digitally savvy people in the industry and that industry’s culture – often driven by old-school leadership – can be a barrier, adding however, that there are signs that some companies are starting to talk about digital marketing capability now.

Instead of a skills gap, Rickwood calls it a communication and culture gap – and one that needs to be bridged quick smart. “We have a pharma industry where senior executives are pre-millennial and pre-internet, and marketing juniors who are millennials and digital natives,” she explains. “There are obligations on both sides to make this work. Millennials need to communicate the value and the effectiveness of the new tech they want to use to senior execs, and in a way that the exec can relate to. And the senior executives need to listen with an open mind and avoid making decisions based on their experience of 20 years ago.”

So, having pinpointed pharma’s pitfalls, what does marketing innovation look like? Well, the quick answer is that marketing innovation isn’t just about digital, nor indeed a multichannel marketing strategy – although this is essential, as is moving with the times (for example, moving beyond the desktop computer to mobile). In fact, what all the experts interviewed by PharmaTimes reiterated was that patient-centricity is the key between bland, same-old marketing and innovative marketing.

“In terms of the best companies,” says Rickwood, “what they have done is embrace digital engagement and a patient-centric approach simultaneously. They are putting the patient and patient experience at the heart of the decisions they are making, both in product development and commercial support.”

This plays to the concept of patient-support programmes and the personalised nature of marketing materials. Murray points out that doctors can now access information online, “so when pharma engages with doctors, companies need to give them something extra they can’t get elsewhere”. She adds: “The starting point should be around customer needs but a lot of how pharma has done marketing in the past, the starting point has been the brand not the patient. It’s about going back to marketing basics in a digital world.”

‘As sales and marketing teams’ freedom to manoeuvre decreases, their efficacy must increase’

Essentially, this heralds a shift to a service model where marketing becomes more about customer-centric solutions and less about selling a product. It’s a common theme seen with the consumer industry, and Bell says this is starting to influence the way pharma thinks as well. Of course, the two industries are very different – regulated versus unregulated – but this doesn’t mean pharma can’t be innovative in its marketing.

Indeed, customer engagement – the oft-quoted end game – is entirely possible in pharma, says Rickwood. The trick is having an orchestrated approach that looks to increase relevance and convenience for the customer. In short, marketing innovation is being able to translate a patient-centric approach into marketing material that is “appropriate” for the customer – and that customer, says Rickwood, is not just a doctor; there are other healthcare professionals involved in the patient journey, as well as the patient, carers, and payers, and each have different needs.

“Innovative pharma marketing reflects the fact that we have a whole group of customers to engage and a company needs to be consistently effective with the right messages at the right time. If pharma wants a customer’s time and attention they have to provide something relevant, at a time and in a way customers find convenient – and that is something that has to be at the heart of all plans for both traditional and more innovative marketing,” she explains. “Convenience and relevance – get these right and you’ll get the engagement part.”

But Murray adds that this is not a stand-alone marketing issue. It also requires a rethinking of the business strategy and the company’s cultural mindset and capabilities, as well as ensuring the infrastructure is in place to enable marketing to be optimised. It’s also about thinking more long term rather than expecting ROI from a six-month pilot (a conversation that is all too worryingly commonplace, Murray says). “Work with an open mindset – learn what works and what doesn’t, and if it fails, do something different next time instead of failing and going back to doing what was done before.”

No one said it would be easy. But given the circumstances pharma doesn’t have much of a choice. There’s a whole heap of change coming at the industry, and marketers will surely rise to the challenge. Says Joughin: “Using appropriate marketing tools together with understanding the customer’s needs will ensure pharma evolves ways to make the most of their products and services.” Marketing now is no longer about selling products but, rather, delivering value through patient-centric services and solutions. Now that’s innovative.

Katrina Megget is a freelance journalist specialising in the pharmaceutical industry