Genentech's mind-tapping science moves needle on Pulmozyme, Tamiflu

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Sullivan: Interview technique working well for Genentech
Sullivan: Interview technique working well for Genentech

Genentech is thinking outside the traditional focus group in an effort to gain a better understanding of patient rationalization and decision-making which, in turn, is helping address the longstanding business challenges of patient adherence and brand preference.

"Pharma companies are drowning in data but starving in insight," declared Laura Sullivan, group manager of patient insights, Genentech, at this week's Pharmaceutical Marketing Research Group (PMRG) 2012 Annual National Conference in Orlando, FL.

According to Sullivan, the problem with traditional patient research is that 95% of decision-making is done by the “non-conscious” mind and that 80% of the messages people convey are nonverbal. “We need to access the emotional brain without giving consciousness to the subject that that's what we are trying to do,” she said.

Genentech partnered with social science agency Brandtrust to adopt advanced visualization and psychodynamic research techniques across a couple of key brands—Pulmozyme (cystic fibrosis) and Tamiflu (flu). Specially trained researchers conduct one-on-one interviews with respondents, who are recruited behaviorally. Key to this approach is that the interviewers have no pre-communication with the client and, therefore, no preconceived ideas about products or the brand objectives.

For Pulmozyme, the objectives were to find out why patients are not taking the medicine as prescribed; for Tamiflu, the goal was to gain insights on what prompts patients to take action quickly (treatment must be initiated within 48 hours of the onset of flu).

Sullivan said the research highlighted three key insights:

Emotional truth trumps physical reality. Patients are struggling every day with their condition and defining who they are, she noted, and so the way a product makes a person feel emotionally is far greater than any physical benefit.

There's a good side to being sick. Most people these days work hard, are under pressure and think they don't have time to take sick days, explained Sullivan. But when they are sick, this is their sanction time.

A spoonful of permission makes the medicine go down. When patients feel like their identity is being threatened by medicine, they fight it. “If you give them permission to skip the ritual once in a while, they are more likely to take it,” she said. “In a way, it's like the Weight Watchers model—it's a more balanced approach.”

Sullivan told delegates that, so far, this technique is working well for Genentech. “It is moving the needle on these brands,” she said. “In fact, the new Tamiflu DTC ad campaign all started with this project and these insights.”

She does, however, appreciate the difficulty of researchers trying to “sell” such a new approach within their companies. “It's difficult, it's uncomfortable and it's really risky, especially for pharma,” she cautioned, “and the brand team may look at you like you're crazy.”

But for this technique to bear fruit, said Sullivan, they have to be fully on board. “The brand team has to own this, believe in it and run with it because I can't be on every agency call.”

She also stressed the importance of working with a good agency partner. “There is a huge difference in how different agencies bring insights to life.”

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