Never mind the ballots

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Chances are that by the time you read this column the dust will already have settled on the voting machines and the identity of the next president will be known.

Even before this election race—traditionally a time of frayed nerves for the industry—became overshadowed by the spectacular meltdown of the financial markets, pharma was having trouble backing one horse over the other.
And as for the financial turmoil, for pharma it's almost been a case of business as usual. The largest companies have, for some time, been sitting on piles of cash, much of which is held overseas, offering relative immunity from the recent financial quake. Pharma's real woes—dried up pipelines, fewer approvals, payer issues and the looming threat of universal healthcare—are nothing new. The ongoing rounds of job cuts are hardly a knee-jerk reaction to the Street's meltdown.

In fact, the credit crunch could see many of the smaller firms and biotech startups land in the bargain bins of pharma's own version of Filene's Basement, ripe for cut-price acquisition.

And, if nothing else, at least this whole saga has taken the heat off pharma for a while. The pinstriped fat cats of finance have become the new scourge of the media and public alike. We've all read about the big bonuses and expenses-paid, spa-treatment-laced retreats, while our own hard-earned 401(k)s have evaporated into thin air. And companies that develop life-saving and disease-preventing medicines don't appear so bad after all. (Even if living longer might seem a less attractive proposition when you can no longer afford to retire).

So, as an industry, here we are still trying to do more with less, just as before. The pharma marketer has been grappling with this mandate for some time. If only there was some magical way to get other people to do the brunt of the promotional work for you—and for free. Well, there is a way, of course. It's called Web 2.0, and its inhabitants are the most willing, voluntary advocates of brands you could ever wish for.

This should not be news to anyone, of course. Joe Natale, VP new media of Johnson & Johnson's Children With Diabetes, offered a compelling illustration of how it works in practice at last month's Digital Pharma conference in Princeton, NJ. 

“In the world of diabetes,” he said, “people want to talk about what they are going through.” Natale described this audience as loyal, aggressive promoters of the products they believe in. “Connect with your influencer and let them evangelize your brand,” citing examples of two such evangelists in the diabetes social media space. 

The first had adopted both an avatar image and user name replicating his brand of insulin pump. The second had not only posted a video on YouTube of himself using his preferred pump, but he had actually calculated, compared and posted the savings he makes versus competitors' products. These people are a brand manager's dream, and there are millions like them online.

Not so fast. J&J spends thousands of dollars a year monitoring its YouTube property for product complaints and off-label advocacy. And then, how do you deal with adverse events? 

“There's no book or guide,” he says. “Just ethics and integrity, trying to do the right thing and putting the patients first.” 

Natale's final point: that social media drives optimism in patients. Pity it doesn't have the same effect on marketers.

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