Pharma, heal thyself

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Hensley Evans
Hensley Evans

We are at the dawn of the Relationship Era of marketing—marked by the end of the Consumer Era, where advertising messages were aimed to persuade or influence consumers to act in a certain way. Such messaging has ceased to have the impact and relevance it did for so long.

In the Relationship Era, a brand must operate out of a sense of purpose and connect with its audience in an authentic manner, based on shared values. This philosophy has captured the imaginations of marketers in consumer packaged goods, automotive, travel and leisure and so on. But the real question is: can this new era of marketing really apply to pharma?

There are obvious obstacles for pharma to embrace the Relationship Era. The largest of these—trust. And, if this is the most important asset for this era, pharma is beginning in a deep hole.  Scandals, recalls, NOVs, fines and jury awards have sullied the reputations of some of the largest drug makers. Even Johnson & Johnson, one of the most trusted companies, has recently been battered with negative publicity.

The other problem is structural. Strictly speaking, no matter what their rhetoric, pharma companies are not operating out of a sense of purpose. The industry's results are not measured by health outcomes; they are measured by NRx, TRx, molecule market share and, ultimately, revenues. Certainly the incentives are structured that way. This is not lost on the public, which has demonstrated little sympathy for the huge investments required to finance drug research and believes it is being gouged for prescription medications.

On the face of it, this would seem to position the entire industry poorly for the future. With few blockbusters in the pipeline, and a business model that doesn't conform to purpose-led marketing, how will they do justice to shareholders, medical professionals, the government and, most of all, the public all at once? For the industry, this bespeaks existential crisis, and demands a radical solution.

I believe that the only answer is a fundamental shift in the structures constituting the problem. To survive in the growing total-transparency environment, companies must operate from purpose, in order to (gradually) re-establish trust with the professional and patient publics and to sustain their enterprises for future growth.  And that trust can be earned through pursuit of a key shared value: good health.

Improved patient outcomes must be added to financial measures as a stated, and measured, goal of all players. Sales incentives that promote only volume must be replaced by balanced measures of business objectives AND general wellness and the right therapy for the patient—maybe your molecule, maybe behavioral change, maybe some combination of the two.  Companies that succeed in delivering and measuring improved health outcomes for their patients will have yet another arrow in their quiver to use in building relationships with managed care, employers, and physicians, while doing real good for their patients at the same time.

The industry has lost the trust of clinicians, regulators and the public. It's time to get that back, and there is only one way to do so: change your relationships across the board. Pharma, heal thyself.

Hensley Evans is chief strategy officer at imc2 health and wellness.
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