Marketing in our industry is not for the faint-hearted, although it is an area where dynamic teams can discover communicative muscles they never knew they had. As digital possibilities emerge at pace, the modern marketing maze offers exciting opportunities, but identifying them amid regulation and digital domination presents a formidable set of challenges. Challenges which, curiously, many relish...

Communicating impactfully in our industry is perhaps the greatest gauntlet laid down to any ambitious or aspiring marketeer. Finding a resonant voice within the holy trinity of healthcare services, regulating bodies and the increasingly influential patient populace, can very quickly become a one-way ticket into the Bermuda triangle, where messages risk disappearing, and unequipped teams can easily go missing, often without trace. The modus operandi for modern marketing teams, therefore, is to accept ‘the maze’; to embrace the maelstrom, however counter-intuitive that might be!

To ‘find a way’, even when all avenues appear unavailable, is the slick pharma marketing team’s mantra. It is an acknowledgement that it is operating in an environment which tests every facet of its skill, resilience, character and – these days – digital agility (including an appreciation of the ‘beta-morphosised’ 21st century patient; completely unrecognisable from the consumer of 15 years ago).

Mysteries of the pharmaverse

Even with the breakneck speed of digitalisation, there are some traditions which remain – good old regulation being the most notable example. Part of that tradition, however, involves regular and unpredictable land movements. Ever-changing rules – whether from MHRA, EMA or the FDA – ensure that pharma’s intrepid marketing personnel are required to negotiate a perpetually reconfiguring medicine maze in which there doesn’t appear to be an obvious start, finish or definitive route.

What’s more, the uniquely hazardous avenues of the pharma marketing maze are prone to being cut off, without warning – not like the grinding stone wall of Indiana Jones vintage, but a lightning fast sheet of impenetrable legislation which can paralyse creative communication in an instant. ‘Keeping your creative hat on’ in this viper’s nest remains paramount.

While regulatory boundaries have always been an occupational hazard, in the brave new world of digital, other doors are starting to fly open for pharma marketing – and at great speed – making the maze considerably more appealing. In the last few years, marketing personnel across the pharmaverse have been honing their ability to stride through these entrances, making their way to unexplored digital pastures; taking them closer to the people that count. It is, however, vital that marketing teams realise that open doors must be negotiated with just as much care as the closed ones of old.

Game of life

The best of pharma’s marketing teams have grown accustomed to altering conditions and will use the experience of adversity to regroup and rise anew – adding layers of creativity to their communicative armour. Some even enjoy the endless cavalcade of change and regeneration, which is just as well because pharma marketing has had to rapidly recalibrate in recent years, as it opens new dual-direction carriageways of communication for a digitally-savvy, highly-knowledgeable and autonomy-seeking species – patient 2.0.

Chuck Stevens, vice president, Access, Commercialisation & Communications at ICON, explains how the landscape has shifted in recent times: “The way life-science companies communicate and market to key stakeholder groups has undergone significant change. Multichannel marketing has historically been focused on a single, siloed approach to communication, but today’s environment sees most targeted audiences choosing to navigate between many touchpoints.”

Indeed, the new virtual maze for pharma marketing teams represents an ultra-modern data and opinion-driven skyscraper whose multiple levels are an exciting, but hectic, hive of products, patients and politics, constantly changing form depending on trends, demands or relevance. It’s an amalgamated game of Jenga and Tetris and Pac-man – with the building blocks of healthcare appearing and disappearing; accelerating and decelerating; collapsing and regenerating, while players also focus on avoiding the ghosts of marketing past. To understand the game is to understand the patient.

“It’s about putting the target stakeholder group at the centre of the strategy, and making an omnichannel goal to deliver an integrated experience for effective engagement,” muses Chuck. “In terms of patient consumers and their care partners, it is essential that we understand the channels that are most engaging and how they resonate with specific patient populations.”

Entering the mainstream

It is very often a new set of circumstances that brings out the best in pharma marketing teams. Some of the most ambitious campaigns emerge against the odds. When your target is to make a fundamental difference to the human race or save thousands of lives, that motivation translates very powerfully to creative energy.

The new terrain for pharma marketing involves gaining traction and credibility in the most dominating communication form of the age – social media. It is, of course, easy to enter this section of the maze, but it is unquestionably a minefield. Pharma marketing teams are wary that, for the first time they are contending with the possibilities, and perils, of ‘mainstream’ communication platforms.

With this in mind, Chuck believes that pharma is only just beginning to scratch the surface of digital as a means of communicating and interacting with patients. “We have seen investments in electronic health records (EHR) data, to enhance messaging, while artificial intelligence (AI), and the use of voice assistants and chatbots, has made interactions more efficient and engaging,” said Chuck.

“Social media platforms, like Instagram and Snapchat, and the development of virtual patient communities are being used to support recruitment into branded registration and post-approval clinical trials. By interacting with patients and care partners directly, pharma is now able to develop targeted strategies that can be tactically driven, by employing digital technologies.”

Behind the mask

One of the great defining characteristics of the digital era, and the context of the pharma/consumer relationship, has been the ability to engage and, by virtue of that, demystify. The option to communicate so directly allows pharma companies to show their motivations, plans and, critically, their ability to deliver personalised information.

ICON’s Access, Commercialisation and Communications team has developed comprehensive communication campaigns for many brands. These include unique EHR-focused solutions – vital for identifying patients with gaps in care related to their particular disease. These solutions provide targeted information to support treatment adherence, tactical programs that improve patient screening for diagnosis and, critically, access to treatment. The ability to ‘talk’ to patients who, in the predigital world, may have felt neglected or alienated, not only breeds trust, but empowers the patient to take on his or her condition, with pharma and health services providing two formidable pillars of support.

Naturally, marketing teams who break bread across social media must know their virtual onions. “Before investing in a strategy development that employs digital, social media or AI solutions, ICON always works with client legal and compliance teams to ensure alignment with their policies regarding engagement methods,” reflects Chuck.

Although patients and providers are getting comfortable at the virtual healthcare table, there is a feeling that other notable parties need to pull up a chair, and Chuck believes, quite rightly, that regulators, payers and policymakers have not been quite as quick to embrace some of the new technology and approaches as industry.

The powerhouses must become part of the interactive equation, if digital communication is to reach its true cohesive potential in the arena of healthcare. There is a traditional view that overseeing and law-making are somehow exclusive from close communication; that ‘getting too intimate’ somehow undermines the process of regulation. In reality – or virtual reality, as the case maybe – the opposite seems to be the case. Talking about regulation among the very people it affects is far more likely to engender understanding and an ability to cooperate across the divides. Sporadic, analogue communication from governing bodies is still one of the greatest risks when it comes to a product’s accelerated or even punctual journey to market. Regular and dynamic communication will see the walls of the maze fall away.

Keeping it real

For all the modern wizardry of digital, it is still human beings that make marketing campaigns fly and the knowledge that they are extending, saving, transforming or empowering lives is still the greatest prize for successfully negotiating the maze.

“Having tangible analytics from campaigns which inform us if we are successful in supporting patient consumer access to therapy is the most rewarding part of marketing in this new age,” insists Chuck. “At the end of the day, the greatest reward is knowing that our strategies and tactics are supporting the lives of patient consumers, care partners and their families.”

Pharma marketing is a tough gig, but it is also an area where success yields a fleeting sense of having contributed to the great conundrum of humanity. It is the feeling that marketing teams savour, before – as sure as night follows day – embarking on the next project, and entering the maze once more.