Pharma brands and the multichannel marketing imperative
For too long, pharma brands have acted as if they are immune to the necessity of multichannel marketing. But if that inertia continues, it could ultimately prove to be fatal.
"We're at a point now where you're going to have to get very good at that if you want to continue to participate [and] even begin to dream about leading in this space," Jeff Conklin, svp/global commercial operations at Bristol-Myers Squibb, told delegates at the ePharma Summit – an event run by the Institute for International Research, and held in New York in February 2014.
"We have talked about multichannel marketing and digital and 'e' for quite some time. And it's been something you can begin to take part in, and begin to build some capability around, but you didn't have to immerse yourself in it. You could still be a very egocentric pharma company – and that's what pharma is, in my personal opinion."
However, the expanding influence of new media platforms in the pharma space is undeniable, from medical sites like WebMD to social networks like Facebook and a plethora of healthcare-related mobile apps. Physicians – a crucial stakeholder for brands – have not been insulated from this trend, either, as they can now access a varied suite of digital tools should they choose.
Senior managers across the pharmaceutical sector, Conklin suggested, have begun to take note. Currently, though, this must be regarded as somewhat of a mixed blessing, because these executives typically view multichannel communications in "terms of strict innovation", rather than as a play which is premised on insights and endeavours to solve problems.
"I'm looking at marketing departments in multiple organisations – including my own sometimes – where they don't even have an immediate problem to solve. We just want an innovation, as if it's an object that you can create, a thing you can bring into a meeting room and set on the table," he said.
At the procedural level, a widespread reliance on decision-making based around POAs – or points of action – hampers the adoption of holistic thinking by encouraging a project-orientated mindset. "The offshoot is, 'Well, wait a minute, we need a shiny object. Let's get the multichannel people in here and they will bring us one, and it will be cool.'"
That attitude reinforces another issue restricting the evolution of innovative marketing strategies: namely, the almost universal desire of pharma companies to develop competencies in-house instead of seeking to form partnerships. "We're drowning in innovation," said Conklin. "We always want to build these capabilities for ourselves, and it's just childish."
Such an idea also stands in opposition to increased openness, transparency and willingness to engage directly with consumers that has been witnessed in other industries. "The rest of the world focuses on those interactions, and trains our patients – on a daily basis – on how to interact with data; how to interact with questions; how to interact with each other on social media. They are the ones we need to be better at partnering with," said Conklin.
The impact of social media, and the need for digitally-driven change within the pharmaceutical sector, is nowhere more
apparent than when discussing market research. At present, traditional approaches remain in favour even though the internet can offer brands that listen a raft of useful insights – from ascertaining the precise terminology that consumers use to learning about how people are dealing with specific conditions.
"I will guarantee that most of the companies you work for right now spend ten times more money doing primary, behind-the glass research than they do on harvesting what our customers are screaming at us every day," said Conklin. "They're giving us all this."
Mining data in this way can help brands avoid some of the weaknesses associated with focus groups. Central among these is the frequently-encountered gap between actual habits and those reported by participants. "They're not telling you really what happens with behaviour," said Conklin.
Securing accurate data is especially important for firms like Bristol-Myers Squibb, as the moment at which it comes into contact with patients is when something has occurred – usually the onset of an illness or condition that one of its products relate to,like diabetes or rheumatoid arthritis – that they "did not want to plan for". Given this, views and opinions can be difficult to formulate or place into a longer-term context.
"We're able to understand that behaviour sometimes even better than the patients, because they're in a new situation in life that they haven't faced before," said Conklin. "They're not going to behave the way they behaved as a general consumer when they were looking at buying a large-screen television. They're going to behave as a patient with stage four lung cancer."
Combining in-house and online data with that gathered from traditional market research could thus be a uniquely powerful strategy for pharma brands. "For me, the use of advanced analytics is what's going to change how we commercialise with patients," Conklin said. "It's not the traditional measurement of data; it's the measurement of behaviours."
And it is here that a multichannel marketing team can come into its own. "It's the only place in existence right now in any of the firms that we work with where all of the data and all of the behavioural aspects – and questions and nuances about our patients – intersect," he asserted. "We know more about our customer, and understand what they need and what they want, from those intersections that exist in that discipline than anywhere else."
By drawing on that material, pharma manufacturers can become patient-centric and start to tackle real-life problems. To successfully reach this point, they will require staff schooled in handling master data about the consumer – and that may mean going beyond the confines of their own industry, and into fields where such skills have matured at a faster rate.
"The consumer packaged goods world is very, very good at this," Conklin said. But perhaps the greatest level of proficiency is observable in an altogether different place: "The best industry in existence right now for that, like it or not, is the gaming industry … They know exactly how many steps to get to a certain machine; how much a certain machine makes if you sit on a stool; they monitor behaviours; they understand how that discipline works."
Conklin has hired employees from operators like Harrah's casino, to tap this knowledge. Alongside diversifying their ranks, pharmaceutical firms will have to end the policy of rotating their commercial talent every 18-24 months, as this dictates that 25- 40% of key staff could effectively be working in an unfamiliar area. "It's what I call a model of incompetence," Conklin said. "Commercialisation to patients in need is not an experience; it's an expertise."
By contrast, if digital mavens are able to join a company as a product manager and then move up the ranks within a single vertical, their advocacy of new media should spread across categories and brands as they rise up the corporate ladder. "That knowledge stays; they're building on that and they're progressing their talents," said Conklin.
An attractive accompanying solution involves forming dedicated multichannel marketing hubs, with the expectation that their role will grow over time. "We're taking those separate channels and kind of pulling them out of the core marketing team," Conklin said. "The next step is that becomes the core of marketing, the core of commercialisation, and not something that's outside and separate."
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