A recent newsletter from Avinash Kaushik’s TMAI has better summarized my thoughts and experiences working in pharmaceutical marketing over the past three years than I ever could. In the newsletter, Kaushik uses Coca-Cola as an example to confront the idea that most marketing organizations believe “that there is a collection of holy brand attributes they’ve obsessively researched, efficiently executed and successfully drilled into humanity over a century. That is why people drink Coca-Cola.” Adding the pharmaceutical lens, we have convinced ourselves that there is a collection of holy brand attributes we’ve obsessively researched, efficiently executed and successfully drilled into humanity over a century, and that is why a consumer may seek – or a healthcare provider might prescribe – a treatment.
This statement encapsulates what I have experienced in my few short years in pharmaceutical marketing: significant time is spent conducting market research to figure out brand attributes, segments, etc.; various marketing materials are created and disseminated through channels in static experiences; and then we convince ourselves that one exposure to a website for 15-30 seconds is enough to get a person to talk to their healthcare provider about our treatment 30, 60 or 90 days post-exposure. We believe the same for banner ads: one exposure influences a person to talk to their healthcare provider about our treatment 30, 60 or 90 days post-exposure. Seriously? Marketing to the healthcare professional is similar, with substantial value placed on weak signals, like email open rates. This is not new. There were YouTube videos and a website created to mock the value of sales representative interactions. For evidence of this, check out Charles Charles in Success Stories on YouTube. While only some believe that there is a kernel of truth in every joke, can anyone recall a website you were on one, two or three months ago? Can you remember what banners ads you saw last month (if you don’t already leverage an ad blocker)? The hardest pill to swallow in all of this is that – in most cases – we find a way to use data as a means to support our belief that interrupting customers with ads to essentially shout at them have substantial impact. I mean, numbers don’t lie…right?
Truth be told, I have noticed very similar behaviors in marketing organizations across industries, particularly in older, well-established companies. If you think about it, this is logical as these types of organizations grew up in an era of mass marketing: craft your message and reach your audience through TV and magazines.
The newsletter highlights the fact that if you take a realistic view as to why people drink Coca-Cola, it is because Coca-Cola is everywhere. “The secret to Coca-Cola’s success? It is there. Simple. Effective. Awesome. The magic supporting that? Distribution, not Marketing.”
If you look at this leveraging Clayton Christensen’s Jobs to be Done Framework, people are able to hire Coca-Cola when they are thirsty and want a sweet bubbly drink because it is almost always an option. I would like to think this is the same with pharmaceutical marketing. A healthcare provider is prescribing a treatment because he wants to treat or prevent a specific condition. Being a believer in data, I would hope the healthcare provider would take an evidence-based approach. Based on the information he collects, he will prescribe the ideal treatment and evaluate the results. Hopefully, in the case of the US, the prescribed treatment has good formulary position which provides access. This is the equivalent of going into a restaurant and asking for Coca-Cola, but the establishment has an exclusivity agreement with Pepsi. Odds are you will stay and drink a Pepsi with your meal.
While this certainly comes across as a pessimistic opinion of the current state of marketing in the pharmaceutical industry, I have hope that it can change as companies explore better ways to leverage data and technology to improve access to the best available treatments. The work pharmaceutical companies do is quite literally life changing. The industry brings treatments to people that can improve, prolong and save their lives. I believe data and technology can help pharmaceutical companies build better relationships with customers, but first we will need to take a realistic look at the ecosystem and start to shift away from using technology to interrupt customers and yell at them with brand messages…when many on the pharmaceutical side have thoroughly convinced themselves that this is enough to make a difference.