Every year, new drugs are approved and older ones go generic. Physicians prescribe medicines and patients take them (usually). Payers extend coverage for brands and exclude others from formularies. 

Of course, that’s a gross oversimplification, but you get the idea. Despite some aberrations here and there, the essential “machinery” of the pharma, device and diagnostics industry grinds on, as predictable and essential as the sunrise. 

But on the marketing front, it’s anything but business as usual. Granted, the sales force is still the biggest line item in the budget, but change is constant, from the new commercial playbook needed to launch cell and gene therapies, to using AI and machine learning to inform creative, to the digital therapeutics promising better patient care. 

For practitioners faced with the continuing quest to engage the 3 Ps, the goalposts are always shifting. 7-Day Supply tapped some of the smartest minds in the industry — marketers and consultants across biopharma, med-tech and agency areas — to recall the marketing milestones that defined the past year. Here they are.

What’s been the biggest challenge, hazard or pitfall that healthcare marketers have had to grapple with this past year?

The sheer complexity of drug launches seemed to ramp up significantly in 2019. Specialty products are already scientifically complex, and we’ve seen innovative, more complicated payment models to improve access to approved medicines with very high price tags. Specialty products that focus on very small patient populations often launched in 2019 with a companion diagnostic, across several key HCP segments simultaneously, with tiny brand teams and little or no Sales support. I don’t see this changing in 2020 — “do more with less” has become “figure out how to address complexity while simplifying your customer’s experience.” – Joe Shields, president and co-founder, Health Accelerators

From a digital governance perspective, CCPA (California Consumer Privacy Act) is barreling down the pike and companies are trying to ensure that they will be ready and compliant. What makes this so challenging is the ability to package consumer data in a format that we can provide it back to them, should they ask for it. This presents a challenge for marketers in how they are collecting data, storing it and what technology solutions they will need to implement in order to be able to serve it. Most companies should be taking proactive action on this and answering to the strictest standard, since California will likely be a tipping point for other states to craft similar regulations in the near future. – Zoe Dunn, president and CEO, Hale Advisors

Healthcare marketers are missing the boat on the biggest change of all: Provider behavior is radically changing. The messages that caught providers’ attention yesterday are no longer effective. The reason? Value-based care. Providers have become entrepreneurs tasked with reinventing their care models to produce better outcomes. The marketers who are enabling care transformation by solving outwardly focused customer needs are the ones succeeding. – Tom Dudnyk, president, Vivo Agency

Drug pricing. And, the challenges are not going to stop. As we embark on an election year, our country is deeply divided — except on the issue of drug pricing. We’re hearing words like corruption and greed when the candidates talk about pharma. Donald Trump recently said that “pharma is getting away with murder.” Our industry is in the hotseat. – Sharon Callahan​, CEO, TBWA\WorldHealth

The pricing transparency initiative is something that we took very seriously, as we always strive to do what is best for patients and deliver information that is relevant and meaningful to them. Especially after mid-April, each company handled it differently, and sometimes even from brand to brand within the same company. This is still an ongoing discussion with legislature in play. But we embraced the climate around pricing to develop even more sophisticated and enhanced ways to ensure patients have access to our medicines, demonstrate the value of our medicines to payers and enable healthcare professionals to treat their patients with the best clinical choice, without barriers. – Lisa Flaiz, director of multichannel marketing and worldwide digital hub lead, Bristol-Myers Squibb

With the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in effect and the CCPA taking effect on Jan. 1, 2020, marketers have had to grapple not only with how their organizations use personal data, but also with the quality and breadth of data that they and their partner organizations can access. This doesn’t mean that advanced personalization strategies and attribution analyses are off the table, but it does mean that many organizations will need to re-engineer the role of data in marketing strategy. – Brian Fox, senior partner, McKinsey & Company

In the past 12 months, what technology, media or innovation has had the most significant impact on healthcare marketing?

The increasing use of AI-enabled voice search has caused healthcare marketers to rethink their customer strategies for 2020. Here are some compelling statistics from comScore, Activate and Google, respectively: 50% of all searches will be via voice by 2020, 55% of all US homes will own a smart speaker by 2022, and 72% of those who own voice-activated speakers say their devices are used as part of their daily routines. In addition to many consumers routinely using smart speakers for search, HCPs are also increasing their use of voice search both personally and at work. Joe Shields, president and co-founder, Health Accelerators

One trend that has been growing is the integration of telemedicine, digital behavioral change and direct-to-consumer prescription delivery. Several new companies like Hims and Hers, and medications like Contrave, have integrated telemedicine into their marketing approach, providing access to doctors who can prescribe without an in-person visit, and set up subscription programs for receiving medicine on a recurring basis. Combined with behavioral change programs like those that Pear Therapeutics is offering, this could set up more wholistic, alternative-care programs focused on driving outcomes with more convenience of access for patients. – Zoe Dunn, president and CEO, Hale Advisors

Robust digital/social marketing via marketing automation systems like Marketo, HubSpot, Pardot, Bronto, etc., are now a minimum requirement for health-tech marketers. The winners are investing in original content that drives social engagement and sets the narrative across each stage of the buying journey. Fully implemented marketing automation is also the only way to affix an ROI to marketing activities. – Tom Dudnyk, president, Vivo Agency

No more rolling the dice and crossing your fingers that a marketing campaign will drive business. We’re moving from “we think” to “we know.” Building a strong data strategy requires new skills and talent. Marketing leaders have a new kind of blueprint for success if they can effectively gather and manage the right data, enable everyone to access and analyze the information, and integrate the right technologies to put audience insights into action. – Sharon Callahan​, CEO, TBWA\WorldHealth

Voice is the most immediate opportunity — from search, to skills, to audio streams on voice-controlled devices and more. Over time, I expect we will see this evolve much like other media channels have in the past, from interruptive messaging to permission-based engagements that fit seamlessly into our daily routines. One of the things I love about the importance of voice for digital marketers is that it continues to reinforce, even after all these years, the critical role that SEO can play in helping consumers find your information. It continues to be true that even if you publish the best information out there, if it is not discoverable, it is worthless. I am looking forward to the day that voice as a channel is integrated into each of our standard marketing tactics, such as search, web, advertising, social and CRM. – Lisa Flaiz, director of multichannel marketing and worldwide digital hub lead, Bristol-Myers Squibb

2019 saw Novartis launch Zolgensma on the heels of Spark’s Luxturna launch in late 2018. These two gene therapies, in combination with prior cell therapy and other orphan and rare disease launches, mark an important moment in our ability to treat — and sometimes cure — previously debilitating conditions. For the healthcare marketer, however, these new, targeted therapies bring new challenges ranging from how to best reach narrow patient populations, to facilitating complicated administration processes (e.g., CAR-T therapies), to the complexity of rethinking pricing models for therapies that are curative in a short period of time (vs. traditional chronic drugs that are administered and reimbursed over long periods of time.) – Brian Fox, senior partner, McKinsey & Company

If you were to associate 2019 with one particular marketing milestone, trend or datapoint, what would it be? 

2019 will be known as the year that U.S. consumers began to truly understand the impacts of routinely sharing their personal data in exchange for discounted, more convenient or ostensibly “free” products and services from companies like Amazon, Apple, Google and Facebook. While the GDPR went into effect across Europe in May 2018, the U.S. primarily relies on state-by-state privacy laws like the CCPA. – Joe Shields, president and co-founder, Health Accelerators

2019 will be known as the year of privacy. With Big Data still a buzz word on every company’s lips, the responsibilities of managing that data and the ownership of that data is of upmost concern. We cannot ignore the dark turn that social media has inevitably taken in recent years, or the impact that will continue to have on eroding consumer trust. – Zoe Dunn, president and CEO, Hale Advisors

2019 will be known as the year of “smart.” Health-tech companies are drowning each other out by promoting their “smart” solutions — those driven by AI, algorithms and machine learning. The tactic is so pervasive that nearly every newly launched product is now a “smart” product. – Tom Dudnyk, president, Vivo Agency

2019 will be known as the year of opioid reckoning, sort of. While opioid addiction has been impacting the U.S. for decades, only recently have companies been held accountable for what appears to be jaw-dropping greed. Opioid marketing amplified the benefits and downplayed the risks of these drugs — and that’s the datapoint we all need to remember — marketing has power, and consequences. It’s not surprising that resentment towards pharmaceutical companies is growing — a recent Gallup poll indicated that the pharmaceutical industry is the lowest-rated industry in the U.S. That’s a sad state of affairs for an industry that contributes so much good to the world. – Sharon Callahan​, CEO, TBWA\WorldHealth

2019 will be known as the year of privacy challenges. Such concerns snowballed this year, and as digital marketers especially, we had to re-evaluate our methods of audience identification, targeting and tracking. In a post-GDPR climate, wary consumers won’t allow marketers to continue sucking in their data if they don’t start to see real value in exchange. Marketers take it as a given that consumers prefer targeted, relevant communications and personalized experiences — and yet consumers’ skepticism about the use of their personal data has escalated in recent years. There’s a broad shift in the digital marketing industry toward making greater use of first-party data, especially given the regulatory environment. By prioritizing first-party data collection, marketers are in a much better position to enhance the customer experience and make it more effective. – Lisa Flaiz, director of multichannel marketing and worldwide digital hub lead, Bristol-Myers Squibb

2019 will be known as the year when “everyone” thought the PBM industry would change forever due to regulatory changes, such as the proposed removal of the safe harbor for rebates. That didn’t happen, but the PBM industry transformed dramatically anyway. Major changes included vertical integration with health plans, rapidly growing participation in the specialty pharmacy market, efforts to more actively manage the medical benefit, and expanded direct care delivery. As the role of PBMs in the healthcare system continues to evolve in 2020 and beyond, pharma leaders will need to re-evaluate their commercial models and look for innovative ways to improve patient access and care. – Brian Fox, senior partner, McKinsey & Company

Which biopharma or med-tech companies, brands or personalities have stood out the most this year, either for their performance, their marketing prowess, their media savvy, or all of the above? 

Many biopharma companies talk about data-driven marketing, but for an outsider it’s difficult to see behind the curtain and understand how a company or brand team really uses data to develop fresh insights that drive marketing innovation. While I question Allergan’s expansion into a younger demographic (minimizing wrinkles for people who don’t yet have wrinkles?), I was intrigued when Allergan announced its first annual National Botox Day in the U.S. on November 20. According to an MM&M article published on the same day, Zocdoc research “showed that November 20 is the busiest day of the year to book a Botox treatment, about 79% higher than average.” Why is this day so busy? The holidays, of course. Allergan noticed a seasonal spike in appointments (and sales) for its mature brand. – Joe Shields, president and co-founder, Health Accelerators 

This question is stumping me. I’m not sure if it’s because no one company/brand has stood out from the pack, or if it’s because many “boats are starting to rise together.” A few things I believe the industry is recognizing: It’s getting harder to be novel in approach, there is so much noise drowning out the messages that it’s better to be targeted than creative, and omnichannel (or some approximation) is the goal in order to be present when our audience decides to “glance in our direction” — we only get one chance to make an impression, so it better be the right one at the right time and with the right offer. – Zoe Dunn, president and CEO, Hale Advisors

Abbott sets the standard for health-tech marketing, which is noteworthy, because five years ago, Abbott was one of the worst. Their brand experience is engaging across all channels and they routinely set the narrative that their competition must react to. Their marketing is a tangible competitive differentiator and their revenue growth is proof. – Tom Dudnyk, president, Vivo Agency

I’m really impressed with bluebird bio’s simple and human amortization model of payment. Bluebird’s gene therapy, Zynteglo for beta thalassemia, gives patients the prospect of living longer with a better quality of life than could be expected with existing treatments. The company’s pricing plan involves an upfront 20% of the cost of the treatment, while the rest is expected to come in 20% installments per year via the insurer if the drug does indeed work as intended. Bluebird’s plan — akin to a mortgage — involves an upfront cost, followed by payment installments. As there are more medical advancements that are essentially cures, these expensive therapies will require payment models that can spread the high upfront costs over time during which public health and economic benefits can be realized. – Sharon Callahan​, CEO, TBWA\WorldHealth

ZDoggMD is billed as healthcare’s only unfiltered voice, and he offers lessons for patients, policy makers and other physicians alike. He does it in a way that is entertaining, transparent and authentic. ZDoggMD tackles the toughest healthcare topics and offers an educated perspective with empathy for the patient and the provider. From EMRs to re-admissions, CPR to self-exams, technology in healthcare to controversy in vaccines, ZDoggMD has a point of view. If you have not watched his library of material, you owe it to yourself to set aside at least an hour. – Lisa Flaiz, director of multichannel marketing and worldwide digital hub lead, Bristol-Myers Squibb