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Fresh thinking

Editors, journalists, product managers, sales reps, chief executives, consultants et al have, in all probability, at one stage been guilty of excessive use of this word during meetings.

It would not be an over exaggeration to say that everyone in the pharma industry uses this word.

Editors, journalists, product managers, sales reps, chief executives, consultants et al have, in all probability, at one stage been guilty of excessive use of this word during meetings, interviews and conferences. It's infectious and likes to be slipped into conversations; in fact it can often spread quicker than a vicious rumour about the bride during a wedding. In short, we love to use it, we love to demand it and we love to pay homage to it.

The word, if you haven't already guessed, is 'innovation' and many within the healthcare sector would argue that its use is natural and justified. It's an innovative industry, they cry, which manufactures and brings innovative products to market. What's more, the fundamental success of the industry is based on innovation - without it, many companies would simply not exist.

Yet, while it is much easier to refer to new products that offer significant clinical advantages over existing treatments as innovative, it is not so simple to pin down the concept of what defines innovation when it comes to marketing campaigns.

Traditional definitions of the word are at best confusing and at worst contradictory. One popular definition describes it as the successful commercialisation of a product, while another is more refined, labelling it as the ability to make changes in something already existing by introducing new methods, new ideas and new strategies.

Perhaps the most apposite definition portrays it as the ability to see change as an opportunity not as a threat. In an industry that is known for its perpetual state of flux, companies' efforts to modify and adapt their procedures to the ever-shifting landscape are coming under the spotlight.

Rather than merely coming out with something new, novel and untried, much innovation in pharma hails from the latest changes and developments within the sector. These could include improvements on the effectiveness of established offerings in mature markets or finding new ways to engage with customers.

Innovation to me means something that hasn't been done before but that usually means some kind of incremental change rather than a step change, explains independent healthcare consultant, Roger Watson.

It may be a different twist on an existing story. Typically, innovative marketing in the pharma industry these days means new ways of interacting with and engaging the customer base. It could also mean a new way of reaching part of the customer base which hasn't been reached before.

Evidence of this can be seen in the way that GlaxoSmithKline developed a new relationship with the NHS through its respiratory teleconsultation service. The scheme aimed to educate asthma sufferers about their condition and ensure they were receiving the most appropriate care. It was the first time a teleconsultation service for a chronic disease had been implemented on a national level to tackle poor attendance in practice clinics and the resulting poor asthma management.

A new customer base
Michael Thomas, associate partner, EMEA pharmaceuticals at IBM Consulting, explains that innovation can come in the form of partnerships with a new NHS customer base, in both primary and secondary care. The other important area, insists Thomas, is direct-to-patient initiatives where he believes performance has been slightly patchy to date.

The perception is that a lot of them are either pilots or quite tactical exercises, he continues. What we don't see much of is companies taking a strategic view of their relationship with patients. There have been glimmers of it, but we have yet to see an excellent example of it on a serious scale.

Watson believes that in this day and age innovation tends to be based on involving the patient much more and helping to facilitate patient choice which, as long as you have the right product, has great appeal.

The most successful initiatives are the ones which manage to weave a web of information and dialogue between the company, the relevant healthcare professionals and the patients. I think the real differentiator between these programmes, and those that are old hat passed off as innovation, will be the question 'has this been done before with this group of customers?'

Industry consultant, Deborah Mechaneck is of the opinion that for pharmaceutical marketers to display true innovation they must concentrate not only on relationship building with the other key players but also tap into the psychology of customers, capturing the essence of what their needs are on both a personal and  professional basis.

It doesn't have to be complicated but in order to make an impact, marketers have to ask themselves what their ideas will do for the medical professional and the end user, she says.

Leonard Lerer, a senior research fellow at INSEAD, defines innovative marketing as strategies and tactics that clearly escape from the current paradigm of what people believe pharmaceutical marketing should be.

For pharmaceutical marketing to be truly innovative, it needs to become more attuned and sensitive to the changes that abound in the industry's reimbursement and regulatory environment, says Lerer, who believes that marketing programmes should be grounded in a real effort to understand the evolution of the market.

By this I don't mean fancy initiatives, but rather marketing driven by a sensitivity to the small but important changes and developments that are occurring in the health sector, such as in the decision-making process. 

For example, certain key opinion leaders (KOLs) may have become dis-empowered now for various reasons because of the way that reimbursement criteria have altered, while a whole new set of KOLs such as pharmacists have become empowered, he notes.

He explains that another key issue centres on formulating a much softer and qualitative approach to marketing, in particular mapping relationship influences.

This is highly important because of the way things such as cost containment, approval and reimbursement are being considered across Europe, says Lerer. And on the other hand, he continues, companies should also be following a model that is well established on the consumer goods side: they must work on more rigorously measuring return on investment for their marketing processes and practice lean marketing.

Technological breakdown
Technology and the different channels of communication also play a part in quest for true innovation. Compared to other industries, pharma's perceived reticence to fully immerse itself in the technological revolution is well documented and it has fallen behind other industry sectors, albeit in the FMCG arena, such as finance  which has used telecoms technology, in particular, to completely re-shape both business and consumer banking.  

However, that the pharma industry has yet to truly realise how effective technology can be as an information channel gives companies an opportunity to shine if they can show they have harnessed technology effectively to maximise their marketing efforts.

With the ability to create a successful and meaningful dialogue with the patient seen as one of the cornerstones of 21st Century marketing in the pharmaceutical  industry, there has never been a better time to explore ways of moulding and improving upon these relationships. I don't think that companies have even begun to seriously exploit the things that can be done with the internet and other forms of interactive technology, says Watson.

Maybe there is some perception of conservatism in dealing with health matters. We know from statistics on internet use that patient research about either their diagnosed, or feared, ailments represents one of the highest uses of the 'net. But when it actually comes to forming an interaction, not much seems to have happened.

Perhaps all the issues around confidentiality and privacy have tended to inhibit people, but I do feel there are opportunities to overcome and I would have expected companies to have started utilising the internet more effectively by now.

The recent Health Select Committee inquiry into the influence of the pharmaceutical industry and its subsequent report have focused a lot of attention on the industry's marketing activities, but many people are sceptical about whether this will have much of an impact on the ways in which companies manage to create new opportunities, and change perceptions and beliefs.

Time for a change
I'm not sure the HSC report will change anything that significantly - there's always been a reticence on the part of the medical professions to admit that they're receiving significant information from the industry and an emphasis on their professional integrity, says Mechaneck.

It may have raised the issue in a more focused way but a greater challenge to marketing departments is whether they can come up with schemes that are truly beneficial to both sides, she continues.  While he accepts that disease awareness campaigns can stir up a certain level of controversy, IBM Consulting's Thomas says that campaigns promoting education and compliance across a whole number of chronic disease areas are incontestable.

There's nothing illegal about this type of work, he adds. It's pointless prescribing cardiovascular drugs for a patient to drop off them in six months' time - that's a waste of everyone's money, he concludes.

Lerer also believes that there is no reason why the HSC inquiry should stifle innovation in marketing: More than forming a barrier, it asks questions of whether marketers actually possess the desired skill set to benefit from this current environment.

On the horizon
The question of what the future holds in store for innovative marketing is an interesting one. While it is generally accepted that there will always be barriers to innovation, Watson believes there is still plenty of room for manoeuvre.

Just because there's legislation and regulation which constrains what you've done in the past doesn't mean you can't be innovative in the future, he says.

It's important that companies innovate in a responsible way - innovation should be a way of bringing success to the company in terms of the use of its product, but which also leads to customer satisfaction both professionally and with end users.

Thomas very much believes that the glass of innovation is about one-third full rather than half-empty and is optimistic that companies will continue to surpass themselves in this respect in years to come.

He cites the flurry of creative activity centred on brand positioning and execution, and reaching out to patient communities. I believe that we're at the beginning of a period where we're going to see really creative marketing and people pushing the boundaries of what is possible. The challenge to the industry will be not whether it is doing something interesting and cutting edge, but rather whether these interesting and cutting edge projects are bringing home the proper commercial returns, Thomas enthuses.

The Author
Gareth Carpenter is a freelance healthcare journalist

2nd September 2008

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