BMS' Phelan: The digital drug launch is upon us

Photo credit: Erica Berger

Examples of big brands altering their commercial approach away from the rep-driven model have often involved mature products. Those in the sunset of their patent life provided drugmakers a haven for experimenting with alternative marketing channels: non-personal promotion, sophisticated CRM. 

According to Nancy Phelan, head of the customer engagement center, worldwide customer operations for Bristol-Myers Squibb, we're finally seeing the impetus for digital experimentation on the launch side.

“I don't think we should be asking ourselves, ‘Are we ready?,' because it implies that digital transformation is still in front of us and that we have time to get ready,” said Phelan, referring to the title of last Thursday's MM&M Leadership Exchange event, “Digital Transformation of Product Launch: Is Biopharma Ready?”

“Actually, we're in the middle of significant structural change,” she said. “Digital transformation can be a key enabler of success in some really challenging and very fiercely competitive markets. But it's going to [require] us to do things very differently.”

Phelan, whose company is launching seven drugs in the US and close to 30 globally, was the keynote speaker at the Bridgewater, NJ, event, which was sponsored by Cadient, a Cognizant Company.

She explained how today's new drugs—often specialty drugs that are targeted and meet an unmet need for a smaller patient population, with a higher price tag to the patient and generally more complexity, whether in reimbursement, administration or clinical data—require a different launch approach. “Although there are some things we can pull from previous mass-market launches, I don't think it's a cut-and-paste," she said. 

Digital can be integrated in many of the traditional areas of launch. One area where she sees it playing a bigger role: reps. “I don't think they're being disintermediated," she said. "They need to be integrated. They're more relevant than ever before.”

Getting reps to master digital tools and to be comfortable conveying clinical data is a "big opportunity," in her view. Message impact, recall and brand preference increase when reps are well-trained and using digital tools, she said.

Digital account tools can also help reps manage the growing number of stakeholders they call on. "Digital data and speed really matter in customer interface," Phelan stressed.

The industry is not known for moving with rapidity, but it is blessed with mounds of data, which can be leveraged to greater effect. For instance, industry has always done speaker programs to communicate clinical data. She urged listeners to think about them differently, and to try on-demand and remote formats.

"If you're a patient and there's a breakthrough in a disease where there hasn't been anything for 15 years," she said, "it's frankly unacceptable that we're going to take two weeks to wait until we do a face-to-face training of a speaker. We have a responsibility to do it as fast as we possibly can, as completely as we possibly can."

Relevance means making it easy for people to find and to digest information. "Let's be really clear: we're never going to be a destination site. we are where people come because they need something."

Thus, "We need to find a way to make it really easy for [patients and doctors] to be able to navigate across our clinical information, access teams and some of our branded properties," she said.

That requires taking more of a customer view, in addition to the predominantly product view which the industry is known for. “Customer planning can happen when you have an organization that understands that you win and lose at the customer interface,” she noted. “I don't think we've made that epiphany yet. We still think we win and lose solely on clinical data.”

Phelan pointed out some other obstacles, namely the inconsistency of digital investment across the industry: "It's got to go from being a 'project,' to 'base operations' and a competitive advantage for us."

Better talent on both brand teams and IT teams is another significant gap, one that seems to grow wider with every technological advance. Said Phelan: "I think it's perhaps the biggest challenge we face."

Following Phelan's keynote, she and several other marketers sat down to debate some of these issues in a closed-door roundtable. MM&M will post an edited summary of their discussion later this year.