Monday, February 15, 2010

The Transformation to Transformational Marketing

At the recent ePharma Summit in Philadelphia, Pfizer’s Joe Shields threw out a provocative question:

“Would the shift to specialty pharmaceutical products lead to less disciplined marketing?”

Joe wondered whether the higher margins of many specialty products would cause pharmaceutical marketers to slip back into the bad habits of yesteryear and spend without a lot of forethought to efficiency and ROI. 

Pharmaceutical marketing, by necessity, has gotten more disciplined as the margins have shrunk on many of the blockbuster brands. Expenditures that were once considered the price of entry – massive booths at medical conventions, national network advertising campaigns and fully outfitted field forces of 5,000 or more – are now routinely and rigorously questioned.

In the past, management wasn’t asking, so why bother measuring? (About 10 years ago, I remember being told by my boss when proudly describing a large cost savings I had helped engineer, “that’s nice but not important here.”) 

Things have certainly changed.

To answer Joe’s question, I don’t believe that the shift to specialty pharmaceutical products will lead to the unexamined spending of yesteryear but I do think it could result in increased spending as it has the potential to completely retool marketing in a way that advances patient care.

Specialty pharmaceutical products, by their nature, apply to smaller, more engaged patient populations often fighting for their lives against devastating disease. These are patients willing to be seen, to be heard, to be known. And knowing and interacting with these patients is taking on different forms than it does with marketing primary care medications. 

In marketing specialty products, more intimate, unvarnished ways of understanding patients including watching lives unfold on personal blogs often offer more relevant insights than the traditional tools of understanding such as large scale A&U’s. Tactically, marketers find themselves in deep conversations with patient ambassadors rather than crowded around a tiny TV monitor on a commercial shoot.

And with this more intimate view, has come greater empathy. It is devastating to be told stories of how pulmonary arterial hypertension saps people of their energy so much so that a short walk to the kitchen for a glass of water is an overwhelming obstacle. On the other hand, it is heart-warming however to hear that same person’s son drove 30 minutes to get his mother a glass of water.

This greater empathy combined with the marketers' natural problem-solving nature, is leading some to shift focus: 

From selling products to transforming patient lives. 

No matter how many well-researched mailings we send, some people simply don’t have the life skills, the mindset, self-esteem or financial wherewithal to successfully address their health challenges. The question for pharmaceutical marketers then becomes “What changes can the marketer help the patient make so that they have the skills that not only help them take their medication but make sustainable changes that impact their overall lives and health going forward? 

Marketer as social worker? Think again.

Customer transformation is marketing. According to “The Experience Economy” by Pine and Gilmore, customer “transformations are a distinct economic offering.” Transformation marketing views its business as changing customers in a sustained way. Published in 1999, the book outlines various levels of economic value from extracting commodities to delivering services to finally guiding transformations.

The idea is not exactly new to pharmaceutical marketing either. People at the ePharma Summit spoke about needing to focus on “value beyond the pill.” However this statement still makes the pill rather than the customer the central point of reference. A more customer centric version asks, “what sustainable changes can we help the patient make to improve their health?”

The answer will probably lead to spending increases on more comprehensive patient services. 24-hour nurse lines cost more than IVRs. Behavior modification programs are more complex than the usual set of patient mailings. True social media marketing and on-line community management is more labor intensive. And designing transformative patient experiences will have a higher CPM than your average television spot.

But the result could be far-reaching changes in patients lives that go beyond the pill and their disease to transform the whole way they approach their health and their life. And it is these fundamental changes that will also enable them to successfully adhere to their medication regimens.

Certainly, mine is an optimistic answer to Joe’s question. I’ll admit, I have a natural affinity towards half-full and rose-colored glasses.

How would you answer Joe’s question?


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