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.
The 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.
Pharmaceuticals 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.
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.
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.
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.