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Building a good defence

Guarding against brand discontinuance is a core component of the new marketing mix 

Football players forming a defensive wallAs the industry prepares for the end of the blockbuster era, companies are gradually moving away from the old mass-media model. Working with complex specialist products and under financial pressures, marketers are now looking for the "surgical strikes" to replace promotional carpet bombing.

Working with diffusion of innovation principles to maximise speed and depth of product adoption is core to this new pharmaceutical marketing model. However, driving adoption is only one part of the equation. There is another equally important element that often sits in the marketer's blind spot, namely the phenomenon of discontinuance.

Products (even successful ones) lose users all the time. This natural negative pull on the system in times of growth, stability and especially decline, is as important as adoption. In order to unlock fully the power of diffusion marketing, discontinuance needs to be part of the equation.

What is discontinuance?
Everett Rogers, author of Diffusion of Innovations, defines adoption as the point when the innovation becomes the adopter's default choice in its category, as distinct from 'trial', for example. The adoption decision is conscious and complex and comprises five distinct steps: knowledge; persuasion; decision; implementation and confirmation.

Discontinuance is the polar opposite. It is defined as the decision to reject an innovation after having previously adopted it. Rogers is clear on discontinuance: it is not a passive process. Like adoption, it is a complex decision involving conscious consideration and decision making over time.

Generally speaking, there are two types of discontinuance (and discontinuers). Replacement discontinuance is the decision to stop using the product based on finding a superior or preferred replacement. Disenchanted discontinuance, on the other hand, happens when a product is dropped because it did not live up to original expectations. Both of these ultimately affect the diffusion curve in the same way and are important contributors to discontinuance as a whole.

In times of growth, discontinuance puts a brake on the system and limits the spread of the innovation. In times of crisis or market shrinking, the higher the rate of discontinuance, the larger the erosion of the bottom line.


Replacement discontinuers

An arrow pointing to the right

Those that decide to stop using an idea or innovation in order to adopt a better idea that supersedes it.
Innovators and early adopters.
Disenchanted discontinuers

An arrow pointing to the right

Those that reject an idea or innovation as a result of dissatisfaction with its performance.
Later adopters.


Reasons to discontinue
While enormous time and effort are put into identifying reasons to adopt, believe, recommend, continue and other positive aspects of the brand, little work is dedicated to isolating and identifying the negative attributes of a brand. Identifying your brand's weaknesses is the first step to building a good defence.

It may seem counterintuitive, even a bit uncomfortable at first, but identifying the negative aspects of the brand can bring about great opportunity for growth, simply by preparing you for troublesome issues that might arise later.

An early start to this process is vital (pre-launch if possible), and listening is key. To get to the real issues, direct consultation is essential – a brainstorm from a boardroom just is not good enough. This kind of customer consultation happens at the early stages anyway, so it's really just a matter of seeking the negative as well as the positive. Ask the right questions and then listen to all responses. This intelligence and insight form the basis of all strategy to come. Eliminating a company's blind spot for discontinuance in the early planning stage, and subsequently minimising customer loss, creates a real opportunity to get ahead of your competitors. Being prepared for discontinuance is only one part of the solution.

The real weapons against discontinuance are communication and customer engagement.

Research suggests that replacement discontinuers are innovative people on top of the latest trends. These people are probably switching to something else for the same reason that they adopted your product in the first place; they want something new and exciting. As such, this discontinuance must be approached as an adoption challenge (giving new reasons to adopt) and will largely be covered by incorporating new ideas and benefits into marketing plans.

Disenchantment discontinuers are different. Research shows that, barring a major safety event or government directive, the main reason for disenchantment is simply misinformation; confusion, conflicting messages or incomplete understanding. We also know that once these people are disenchanted, they are more prone to publicise their negative experience, meaning that the misinformation and confusion are spread.

This type of discontinuance is the most damaging. Yet, as we know, negative word of mouth can only reign when the negative viewpoint dominates the conversation. As such, the answer to misinformation and disenchantment is engaging the customers in straight, honest conversation.

Positive engagement
A case study for this kind of positive engagement took place a few years ago with computing giant, Dell. Sub-par customer service was causing a wave of negative word-of-mouth, epitomised by widely-visited blogs like "Dell Hell". Recognising the importance of reputation and customer perceptions, Dell took action before negative opinion got out of control.

As a first step, the company dealt with the problem by overhauling its customer service. Next, to engage with dissatisfied customers, it tried to identify the themes in the negative feedback and involved itself in the conversation by enlisting company executives to participate in forums and comment on blogs. As it started listening to, and acting on, customer suggestions, negative perception began to fade and in its place an incredibly loyal following grew. After three years of focused effort, Dell managed to turn its brand around and "Dell Hell" bloggers are now vocal advocates for the brand.

Discontinuance in pharma
Even though pharma is unlikely to engage disenchanted customers using the same direct blogger-to-commenter approach, the lessons from Dell are vital, ie communication and engagement are key.

Pharma differs from other industries because of the strict regulations governing communications with its customers, limiting opportunities to interact directly. This does not mean, however, that we should allow negative word of mouth and discontinuance to run roughshod all over our carefully-laid strategy.


Discontinuance strategy: Before it happens

Life cycle planning Consider discontinuance alongside adoption as a contributor to growth and sales, with discontinuance prevention activities a priority.
Customer research Actively seek barriers to adoption and reasons to discontinue as early as possible in planning.
Seek the advice of critics, as well as advocates, as their insight is just as valuable.
Communications planning Plan for open and credible communications from early in the process – this can help cut discontinuance off before it gets a foothold. Face product challenges head-on in the communications plan.
OL strategy  Consult appropriate OLs on possible discontinuance issues and work together on possible prevention measures.
Ensure open lines of communication with OLs.
Ensure OLs are expert in the science behind the brand in order to combat misinformation and confusion when it arises.


Discontinuance strategy: White it's happening

Listen: negative
Scan the literature and the web to get to grips with the negative story.
Consult with discontinuers, if possible.
Engage: OL strategy    Seek expert advice quickly.
Consult on their understanding of the reasons for discontinuance and seek their advice on counter measures.
Use open lines of communication, eg company website.
Reinforce positive messages through credible, scientific means.


Life cycle planning
There are many ways to deal with the discontinuance in pharma, starting with good life cycle planning, a commitment to communications and, perhaps the trump card, solid opinion leader (OL) strategy and engagement.

Discontinuance is happening to your brand, whether you're aware of it or not. In the past, it was possible to ride blockbuster adoption and stash the "crisis management plan" or "objection handler" designed to deal with discontinuance in the bottom drawer. However, the tighter margins of current-day pharma mean we can no longer afford to leave such big strategic considerations on the sidelines.

If you want to do the best for your brand, regardless of where it is in its life cycle, you need to start allocating time and resources to growth limiters, as well as to the growth drivers. Embracing the other side of diffusion, no matter how counterintuitive it seems at first, can bring real rewards. A plan that includes consideration for the overall quality and continuity of communication, identifies and makes plans for the potential pitfalls over the life of the product and ensures good engagement with the right OLs, will go a long way to guarding against discontinuance and harnessing the power of brand diffusion.

The Author
Matt Rowley is managing partner at The Central Group

To comment on this article, email

29th March 2010


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