Why Pharma Should Stop Marketing Products and Start Marketing Services

Zoe Dunn, Principal, Hale Advisors
Zoe Dunn, Principal, Hale Advisors

When I got back from Digital Pharma West in San Francisco, a crazy idea formed in my mind about the pharmaceutical industry I have known and loved over the last 20 years: maybe we should stop marketing our products to consumers all together.


You heard me: it's hopeless. Give up.

Why? Because our entire industry is built solely on manufacturing and sales, yet we market our products like they are service offerings and we are solution providers. Those of us working in innovative new communications channels like social media and mobile, and even traditional digital like websites and search, have been fighting a battle inside and outside our companies every day for two decades! We are still wasting our “Chi” on justifying Facebook pages and responsive design, and pleading with the FDA to allow information to be presented in an intuitive way (Really? Even my 2-year-old grasps the concept of “one-click away”). We still get questions like “how do we know if a tweet was successful” and “how will we handle the 'millions' of followers for our branded Facebook page?” But by successful, the questioners mean sales and sales alone and unless you're Paris Hilton, you really will never have to worry about managing a volume of followers—pharma is just not that cool. Oy vey! The way I see it, we have two options left: evolve or devolve. And the first option simply can't happen without some major changes in perspective. So what would it look like if we put the second option into play?

I say we shake it up and break the current pharmaceutical company model into two parts. What would happen if a new kind of digital pharmaceutical health company was born, where its sole function was to keep healthcare providers, payers and patients informed and engaged? A company that partnered with payers and providers on population health issues? A company that empowered the R&D and manufacturing side of the industry to concentrate on continuously innovating and answering the call for better health outcomes? Then we can let the “other” type of pharmaceutical company focus solely on manufacturing products and selling them. Today, we're all still trying to get people to buy our drugs and be a trusted health advisor, but these two goals seem to be working firmly against each other.

So how would these divergent pharma companies of the future work?

The new digital pharmaceutical health company would be responsible for educating patients on diseases—broad category, emerging orphans and everything in between. They would be tasked with raising condition awareness and helping patients navigate the treatment options with their providers as they personalize the treatment regimen (personalization algorithms and their growing impact were a fascinating theme at the Digital Pharma West conference, which had a decidedly Silicon Valley feel to it). DTC marketing as we know it would become primarily unbranded (except when a product is the only one in its category), and the pharmaceutical industry would reclaim its respect amongst consumers as a problem solver instead of a product pusher. DTC would also be used to make people aware of their personal role in managing their own health.

The new pharmaceutical manufacturing company would become even more laser-focused on sales and profitable manufacturing. This means clinical research and population health data is where money would go to speed up the scientific discovery path—imagine a product for pre-Diabetes or pre-Cholesterol depending on a patient's risk factor.  

Customer service for patients on product would become a key tool for the pharmaceutical manufacturing company. Better customer service (because manufacturers in other industries know that customer service is the key to loyalty, which directly drives profits) would enable the pharma manufacturing company to drive compliance and adherence. Compliance and adherence are critical profit centers, which are mainly ignored in current pharma marketing. Yet, medications that require a longer course of therapy have a higher risk for failed adherence and compliance. Refills generate more efficient revenue than new product starts. Mobile, social media and search would be the tools of choice for this new pharmaceutical manufacturing company's customer service, because the tools are accessible and fast.

All this compliance and adherence would certainly (hopefully) lead to better health outcomes. With the ACA, health outcomes are a key focus for both payers and providers. Perhaps payers would begin to bonus providers like we do our teachers, based on good outcomes, in this case, health outcomes. And when a “bonus” system is in place for providers from payers, providers would have a vested interest in it too. We are one step away from this with ACOs.

The new pharmaceutical manufacturing company would also be able to change its sales model. It could use the EHR platform to showcase products, with the clinical data as the selling tool. With this change, would we need most reps (other than specialty and surgical)? If, when a patient was diagnosed, all the viable (read: effective and payer covered) choices came up, complete with 1:1 clinical research comparing their features, benefits and risks (much like we shop for insurance), then together the patient and physician could evaluate which treatment approach would be the best to take. I bet manufacturers would sell more with less waste, make more money to put into better clinical research, earn the respect of the masses….

Wait??!!? What??!?! Was I nodding off? Anyway, time to get back to work. I have social media guidelines to write and I'm trying to convince a brand team to not turn off search in the fourth quarter…. See you guys around.