Syneos Health's Ewan Cutherbertson on lessons for biopharma marketers during COVID-19

Palm trees bend and sway in hurricane-force winds that could topple an oak or crack the trunk of a sturdy pine. There’s a lesson here for biopharma marketers during the planet-wide hurricane that is COVID-19. Flexibility in the face of uncertainty is essential – especially as we transition to a new world of omnichannel marketing and tech-enabled field reps. The takeaway is self-evident. Be the palm tree, not the pine.

As marketing engagement turned virtual in the early days of the pandemic, the rush into remote calling, webinars and other modes of digital outreach seemed to support a broader push toward omnichannel, as conventionally described. In one sense, this was appropriate. A plethora of new tools enable us to look at healthcare providers (HCPs) holistically, analyse how they interact with digital media, measure each impression and assess preferences with the help of behavioral science.

Under the banner of non-personal promotion (NPP), reps also can extend their brands through tailored one-to-one experiences, both face-to-face (F2F) and virtual. Marketing automation platforms like Salesforce, meanwhile, can help the rep increase a sense of personalisation without an in-person presence.

The trouble is, COVID-19 gave marketers license to pump out untailored, undifferentiated content. Bombarded by noise throughout the summer, European HCPs began to withdraw permission for marketing engagement. Not just digital outreach – any kind at all. This is the rough equivalent of an oak tree crashing on a power line. It’s exactly the outcome omnichannel aims to avoid.

In Europe, perhaps more so than in the US, the march toward tech-enabled field forces and omnichannel-everything must be nuanced and flexible. In the same way that brands in Europe must secure permission to engage with any customer, via any channel, we also must embrace the heterogeneity of our client base. Even during the pandemic, many HCPs prefer F2F over any digital modality. When lockdown or social distancing makes this impossible, the onus is on the marketer to customise digital alternatives for each engagement based on known preferences of the content recipient.

Market research by Syneos Health strongly supports this approach. In October, we surveyed European HCPs on their preferences toward promotion channels during the pandemic and beyond. Of nearly 500 respondents, fully half said they prefer F2F calls when possible. But, in almost equal numbers (42%), they approved of the flexibility around virtual calls as regards time availability. On the minus side, just 16% said they were utilising more web-based materials. Do virtual calls get straight to the point? Again, only 16% said ‘yes’.

Digital content and algorithmically enhanced channels are useful when they amplify well-designed, calibrated messages. They cannot serve as a replacement. Missing this point, you may find yourself in the awkward position of inviting an HCP to join your Zoom meeting, not realising the state-run health system prevents her from downloading the app. have gone to the trouble of optimising your digital service for Google Chrome, unaware the local health system bans the use of this browser.

Over the next three-six months, one or more vaccines may radically alter global environments for biopharmaceutical marketing. However that plays out, Syneos Health believes that the future will not pave over the present. Heterogeneity will be the game in Europe. Even in a calmer climate, we will sing the praises of the graceful palm.

If you are looking to build flexibility into your field teams, contact me – Ewan Cuthbertson at