Pharmaceutical Marketing Strategy

Pharmaceutical marketing strategy focuses on the mundane

Pharmaceutical marketing is faced with two issues: Its players must report the potential side effects of their drugs when promoting their uses and a increasingly prominent part of the market is generics, with most patents running out after 20 years.

Those are only a handful of the issues facing Big Pharma today. But pharmaceutical marketing strategy industry-wide is exacerbating the problems.

Pharmaceutical marketing strategyThe companies address those hurdles by running expected and non-differentiating advertising. They take on the generics by creating made up names that they believe will set them apart and give them a unique URL.

Let’s take these issues one by one. We’ll finish with what changes should be employed in pharmaceutical marketing strategy so its marketing becomes different and more effective.

The side effects question

We’ve all seen the ads. People are living a healthy and fulfilled life while they are walking, running, gardening, being with friends and family in them. Meanwhile, a voiceover explains some scary side effects: Nausea, paralysis, shortness of breath, even death.

Pharmaceutical marketing strategy aims for the patient to provide the pull through for doctors prescribing those drugs. But those regulated messages prevent much of that from happening.

The regulatory rule reads that you must state the side effects if you state the benefits. That causes a dilemma for pharmaceuticals because they can’t avoid it. Therefore, they plop that verbal footnote in the middle of the ad so they can tell the good stuff at the beginning and the end. They are praying viewers forget about the side effects.

However, they would be more effective if the ads projected more interesting visuals than just the living my life images.

Some try different things. In an ad for Toujeo, a diabetes drug, a woman walks through a white-paper world that reflects her journal and her feelings.

Animation is the go-to tactic for many pharmaceuticals, often to uneven effect. The Toujeo spot is more visually interesting than most (thus slightly overcoming the side effects problem) while others are just stupid.

Internet circles have been alive over Movantik ads with a woman walking around carrying a suitcase of poop. Of course, that suitcase is supposed to represent constipation. But it visualizes something else.

The unintended hilarity does not mask the verbal footnote of side effects. It actually increases the awareness of it. The voiceover says: “Movantik may cause an increase in stomach pain or abdominal pain, or diarrhea and vomiting.” The dialogue narrates the images of the female character walking through a park with her suitcase of waste and an opioid capsule.

Showcasing a boring lifestyle imagery only places more focus on the side effects because the imagery is so expected and dull.

Even though the recent spots for Entresto sport a nice effect of its cast singing, “Tomorrow,” the spot looks like everything else.

Interesting visuals do not completely pull companies over the hump. But can’t pharmaceuticals be more imaginative? And provide imagery that is more meaningful?


To tackle generics, pharmaceutical marketing strategy focuses on blockbuster products. Pharmaceuticals have a limited window to capture an audience before generics and other competitors take hold. So they go big.

So each spends around $5 billion (billion, not million) on advertising, focusing on the blockbuster drugs that will capture large amounts of attention. It’s not a bad strategy. But it’s akin to movie studios depending entirely on blockbusters rather than the middle ground where most movie classics are produced.

Pharmaceutical marketing strategyPharmaceuticals are so dependent on the blockbuster nature of their drugs that they figure the drug alone will sell the ad. They believe they don’t have to change the same imagery and tone. It’s like they are all feel playing from the same playbook.

In fact, they may be. Like many other industries, pharmaceuticals hire ad agencies long experience in creating drug commercials. That is, they believe experience is the key to producing good pharmaceutical advertising, not groundbreaking strategy.

That kind of thinking leads to ruts, much like what the automobile industry has been experiencing for years. The ads themselves are not creating preference. In fact, unless you are paying close attention, it’s difficult to separate one pharmaceutical ad from another.

Pharmaceutical marketing strategy
This imagery is typical for pharmaceutical marketing

The incestuous nature of using the same ad agencies over and over again creates this situation. If an ad stands out, it’s usually because the people in it – generally, not actors – have a particular quality that makes them seem human rather than stock figures.

If pharmaceuticals are determined to create preference in light of the cheaper costs of generics, then they need to do better.

Creating preference

Pharmaceutical marketing strategy has simply gotten lazy. Companies hire the same agencies, trot out similar advertising and rarely create long-term preference either for the parent brands or the individual products.

That’s because creating actual preference is difficult work. Launching quantitative research that asks the emotional questions that drive behavior is not easy. The usual attitude & usage studies the industry has traditionally relied on don’t do the entire job.

Pharmaceutical marketing strategyCreating preference means looking past the status quo to create advertising that is truly different and better.

Parent brands also need to create their own preference because creating preference for each individual product is expensive. (Hence, the $5 billion advertising bill.)

It would be much more efficient if the parent brands of Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline, Merck and others were the generators of preference. Doctors and patient could more easily navigate all the offerings.

If, for example, Pfizer’s brand was focused on being less harmful than any other, that brand promise would filter to its products. So, Eliquis, a drug to reduce the risk of stroke, would be known as a less harmful way to treat that risk. Eliquis by Pfizer would mean something and give direction to its advertising that goes beyond the boring clichés of today’s marketing. (Such as an old guy pretending to play guitar.)

Pharmaceutical marketing strategy must address the advertising rut as few, if any, are creating anything that works. To make their dollars count, those companies should be looking toward brand. It’s cheaper, more effective and is the directional power all of them need.

Belsomra commercial hits a new high

The new Belsomra commercial is amazingly emotional.

Well done. The new Belsomra commercial is a sure fire winner. Belsomra has been able to elevate the new drug to an emotional chord that neither Lunesta or Ambien achieved.

The new commercial positions insomnia as a friendly but inappropriately intrusive pet who brings distance between the furry little kitty cat avatar simply known as sleep.

It is both convincing and fun to watch. One of those rare examples of CGI not getting in the way of the message and the message here is completely emotional.

ZZZquil and Belsomra
P&G knows opportunity when it sees it

How big of a problem is insomnia? BIG — if you are to believe the CDC which says sleep disorders are a big problem in the US.

Ambien. Belsomra will win in the end
The market leader

It is such a common complaint that brands like Vicks Nyquil have launched a new brand called ZZZQuil that has none of the cold and flu medications of the parent brand and instead focuses on the “so you can get the rest you need” promise of the popular cold treatment.

The importance of the sleep aid marketspace has not been lot on P&G. In the battle for shelf space, P&G has brought out the big guns.

Lunesta may have its ethereal butterfly and Ambien continues to battle for category (sleeplessness) benefits —the generic form, Zolpidem Tartrate, has become the defacto prescription go-to by the sleep deprived masses.

Belsomra commercial is on target

The sleepless problem is so common that melatonin might well be challenging multi-vitamins as the category sales leader in OTC supplements. But all of the commercials and advertising talk about the problem is clinical terms or make feeble attempts at creating an emotional connection like Lunesta. Its soft tones and dreamlike imagery fails to grab the emotional chord that Belsomra now clearly owns.

Belsomra commercial
Belsomra requires a prescription

Despite consumer reports recommendations to avoid Belsomra-like pharmaceuticals, expect this drug to take the country by storm. Once it is reimbursed by healthcare plans without added hurdles, I expect this to be the new star.

We all covet the warm and soft CGI “SLEEP” kitty and it harkens back to the teddy bear of our childhood.

The soft and gentle kitten is so compelling I can hear the purr in my mind’s eye. Emotional? You bet. And emotion IS the driver of brand preference.


Even the mandatory fine print disclaimers are done so tactfully that they blend into the story line. Visually, you watch the sweet sleep avatar and see the insomnia avatar with understanding and sweetness.

Putting insomnia into the doggie bed branded Belsomnia is the final stroke of genius.  This is GREAT stuff.

Read how emotion is the engine of brand choice here

Read an article of growing market share in the pharmaceutical industry 

Brand Opportunity In The Pharmaceutical Industry


By Tom Dougherty

Umbrella Brands and Umbrella Companies

Brand Opportunity In The Pharmaceutical IndustryPharmaceutical giants such as Pfizer, Merck, Abbott Labs, among others, have done an excellent job creating new drugs.  These “umbrella” companies have had some success in branding and marketing, but they could be doing so much more for their parent brands. There is brand opportunity in the pharmaceutical industry  to be had with individual brands, but where the real brand power lies is not the apple, it is the tree. The shift in marketing strategy from calling on doctors to prescribe new drugs to advertising directly to consumers has transformed the pharmaceutical marketing industry, an industry that formerly took root purely within advancements in chemistry and science.  New and better drugs are constantly entering the market, and drugs like Viagra are becoming household names. The average consumer knows all about Viagra from commercials, stand-up comedy, and famous spokesman such as Raphael Palmeiro and Mark Martin.

If you were to ask those same consumers who actually made Viagra, you would be hard pressed for an answer. As we all know, the pharmaceutical business lives and dies by Research and Development. R&D costs are so incredible that new companies can go out of business without ever producing one drug.

Companies cannot predict which line of research will result in the next wonder drug, so it is difficult to divvy up their eggs amongst R&D efforts. Focus on R&D results in larger companies buying smaller companies that develop promising drugs. However, as research gets more expensive, drug prices do too. Acquisitions and mergers always bring obstacles in the path of brand development.

On the whole, pharmaceutical marketing invest in creating separate brands (a house of brands model) for each drug they create, which, although aiding in the merger issue, does little for brand equity for the parent company.  Rather than building on an established brand promise, drug companies reinvent the wheel when developing a new drug. Outside of Wall Street, brands like Merck and Pfizer have little to no meaning. Consumers may only know Merck after watching news coverage of the Vioxx lawsuit. With such ardent focus upon R&D, it is easy to see how drug companies loose their parent brands.  The brand quickly becomes secondary to the drugs. This absence of brand is evident by the lack of meaning with any drug other than the description of the malady the drug treats.

Where is the Customer?

A house of brands identifies a singular customer without adding the umbrella brand value of the manufacturer (Think of Apple or BMW as the ultimate branded house) (Read more about the BMW Brand Opportunity In The Pharmaceutical Industrybrand model here) This description provides no equity in the drug itself or the company who produces the drug. Nor does this basic description facilitate connection with the customer. Pharmaceutical companies have untapped potential to differentiate. Most pharmaceutical marketing groups create what we call “a house of brands” because there is arguably more equity in a drug company’s individual drugs than in the company itself. Although this is not the ideal business model, it can be effectively managed and profitable.

In order for companies to succeed in the utilization of the Proctor & Gamble model, they must re-evaluate how they market their drugs and how they create a brand strategy that connects with the target market. This analysis goes beyond using fear tactics that are commonly used in today’s drug advertising under the guise of being a consumer’s partner in health. Instead, drug companies must look for ways that connect with consumer beliefs. This understanding must be evident in everything for which the brand stands, starting with naming.

Drug names border on the ridiculous. While there are regulatory imposed restrictions for the naming process of drugs, there is clearly room for companies to better address the complexity of naming. The name of the drug must in someway mean something to the consumer and represent something more than the “healing attribute” of the product. The name of a product cannot accomplish everything for the consumer and does not encompass all of what the brand entails, but it certainly can form an initial brand connection and recognition. In contrast to the house of brands model, the second and much stronger option for pharmaceutical companies is to create branded houses. This strategy creates specific meaning for the parent brand, and all offerings thereafter function as vehicles of that meaning.

A Better Model

This model would involve a great expenditure of resources in order to properly bolster the parent brand. However, creating a branded house would be less expensive over time as consumers could then start to build relationships with the company rather than a seemingly unattached individual drug. Subsequent product offerings would not be nearly as costly because brand meaning would have already been established through the parent brand. This model also aids in the difficulty of naming new drugs because the drug would already have an immediate connection to the parent brand name. Clearly, there is plenty of room for brand development within the pharmaceutical industry. At Stealing Share, we make it our business to seize these brand opportunities within the market place, providing actionable and strategically sound tactics. Branding is more than creating a great looking logo or a catchy name. Brand, like pharmaceuticals, must be researched, tested, and developed before it is of any value. It is about time that pharmaceutical brands go beyond theory to take hold of the identities they deserve.

Brandnameitis: The Lack of Brand Coherence in Naming


By Tom Dougherty

In Ethical Drugs it seems that Confusion is in Charge

Pharmaceutical brand naming strategy is wasting money
Brand naming seems to excite pharmaceuticals

It would be easy if all drugs fit into categories named after the seven dwarves (Sleepy, Sneezy, Dopey, Happy…etc.). Unfortunately, the brand naming strategy of new drugs is well short of a fairytale process. Drugs, regardless of prescription or over-the-counter status, lack a coherent brand-naming standard. The seemingly random production of brand name drugs not only prevents consumer (and physician) efficacy but also obstructs many helpful drugs from the view of the target market. For example, have you ever heard of Callisto, Ridomil, Actara, or Quadris? Perhaps you have taken one of those for a headache or for chronic back pain.

We hope not because those are actually brand names of crop protection chemicals. What is the difference between a name like Callisto or Actara as opposed to Cialis or Allegra? They are created by marketing firm ABC for product XYZ. There is no differentiation. There is no brand. In the pharmaceutical industry, there are just names. In fact, all drugs are guaranteed three names: chemical, generic, and brand.

The chemical name is the technical name that is rarely used in practice and only understood by lab rats and physicians. Generic names, which usually involve a chemical stem for identification, must go through several approval steps in order to be established. Generic names are ideally short, easily pronounced names because these are the names with which healthcare providers and medical students must be familiar and comfortable. Perhaps generic drug naming has more to offer than we think. (Read our market study on pharmaceutical brands here)

Names Are Marketing Elements

What follows the generic name is the actual brand name. The brand name is where the marketing element of pharmaceutical naming comes into play. Pharmaceutical experts explain, “Creating a generic name is a science; creating a brand name is more of an art.” Pharmaceutical brand naming strategy causes great expense. Naming a drug seems to be equivalent to naming a car or a type of running shoe. The brand name is purely a marketing decision and may very well have nothing at all to do with chemistry. However, drug brand names must pass many rigorous tests before being finalized. Drug brand names require USAN Council and FDA approval in addition to the typical legal checks for trademark infringements. In addition to the several stages of approval, drug names cannot make “over promises” to the consumer. For example, Regain was the original name for Rogaine, but was overturned because the result of regaining hair was considered an over promise to the balding consumer.

brand naming strategy's goal is to steal share
Brand name’s should be logical

What also differentiates the resultant marketing of a drug is the fact that the FDA and USAN continue to monitor the marketing materials of the drug in order to maintain the integrity of the medical information. This exclusive naming process within the pharmaceutical industry makes the concept of brand even more distanced and untouchable for drugs, which places an immediate strain on the consumer market. In order to neutralize the relationship between consumers and drugs, pharmaceutical companies’ advertising campaigns have attempted to familiarize consumers with drugs with the same messaging Budweiser and Target utilize. Names like Viagra, Rogaine, Valtrex, and Claritin mean something to the consumer because of the commercials they recognize from TV and the famous spokesmen who promote the drugs. The drug names do not factor in at all. It helps for the names to sound like something else or to be short and easy to pronounce. Otherwise, drug names may as well be as random as the items in your refrigerator.

Naming’s Place

Where does naming fit into brand? Naming involves a lot of thought, creativity, and artistry; however, strategy should always be in the foreground when naming a new brand or renaming an old brand. Naming is not identity, brand is. Who the customer believes he is when he uses a brand is the most important instrument upon which brand naming must play. Naming and brand must work together in order to maximize efficacy. A name can only do so much to influence the customer; however, in order for a brand to influence at the point of purchase, the name must also be in sync with the brand identity.

An association and self-recognition must occur within the mind of the customer. Many companies confuse names with brands because they are not aware of what brand really means or what kind of process branding truly involves in order to succeed. Similar to any consumer product or service, the pharmaceutical industry needs to do its homework on the target audience in order to properly name and brand drugs. This involves careful research and observations of consumer trends within the market. Most of these drug names are merely made up names that are created before the drug is even produced, untested and given little thought by marketers (other than FDA approval and trademark infringement). There has to be something more to these names, and whether that indicates the lack of influence of parent drug companies such as Merck, Pfizer…etc., or a lack of effort on the part of marketing firms, something must be done to differentiate arthritis medication from plant fertilizer.

Growing Market Share in the Pharmaceutical Industry

A Short Market Study of Pharmaceutical Brands

By Tom Dougherty

The pharmaceutical market battles over rather common sense table stakes. No one will purchase a medicine or drug unless it is deemed as effective. Likewise, no one will pay for a medicine or drug, regardless of how cheap it is, unless they deem it effective.

Pharma.001The pharmaceutical market values brand names, but in true to form human nature, “familiarity breeds contempt,” and after newness wears thin, customers gravitate to generics. Motrin is a perfect example of a product that has lost business to generics and usurpers. Ibuprofen is now sought after rather than Motrin, Advil, and the like. Much like the automotive industry, which has destroyed its brand equity by selling car models rather than manufacturing brands, consumers would be able to tell you the brand value of VIAGRA, but would be hard pressed to tell you what Pfizer represents.

Every new pharmaceutical brand launch must start from scratch in building its equity because all of the brand name manufacturers live on the same real estate as all of their competitors. A new product from Bristol Myers Squibb enjoys no increased or unique equity in comparison to a potion from the labs of Pfizer. Certainly every brand name manufacturer lives and dies on efficacy (and insurance coverage).



Chart showing how to grow market share in the pharmaceutical industry
Having a brand meaning will grow market share in the pharmaceutical industry


Looking at the Pharmaceutical Market

But within that quadrant there is room for brand and self-reflective definition and differentiation. As in all great brand positions, it should be reflective of the precepts of the target audience it seeks to attract. Any brand that represents efficacy but has added the brand value of any number of attributes available will have more successful and less costly brand launches. When such a branded manufacturer creates a new pharmaceutical product, it carries the weight of the parent equity and has established meaning. This brand truth is as important and real in ethical products as well as over-the-counter products.

Read about Pharmaceutical Companies as umbrella brands

Growing the brand in pharmaceuticals

Choosing a pharmaceutical brand name

Read about market research here

Read how to analyze a market here