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Kicking the Habit

Some marketing 'habits' help build a strong and healthy brand, while others can make it weak and vulnerable. Here are six to avoid

A baby sucking its thumbCriticism of the pharmaceutical industry is nothing new, but the issues seem to be piling up as never before. Over the past year, product safety issues, allegations of deception or cover-up of important data, and errors in judgment have affected the fortunes of several drug categories and given politicians, regulators and the news media fresh opportunity to take aim.

Despite the industry's commitment to compliance standards, patient privacy, and greater transparency around clinical trials, the developments worth watching might be those engineered by others. For example, the US Food and Drug Administration is likely to develop a division of drug safety to track products in the market. Adverse event registries are on the rise in the UK and the US. Journals are cracking down on manuscript submissions procedures and playing more of a gatekeeper role. And there appears to be a growing number of independent experts both in the UK and overseas committed to critiquing drug findings.

Drug companies must and will continue to market their medicines in this environment. But what should marketers think about as they consider using PR to support their brands? Here are six habits of highly vulnerable brands and advice on how not to become one. We also offer suggestions on how to establish trust with customers and consumers along the way.

  1. Ignore the critics' (and often patients') concerns

Critics often, though not always, prove to be correct. At first, their concerns are easily dismissed. But as experience with a drug or class grows, increasing numbers of patients and doctors come to embrace their point of view. Drug makers, on the other hand, resist their critics - offering theories to explain a confounding effect. They often choose to consider a legitimate medical insight as a marketing threat. Over time, however, critics make their case felt as they did most recently with the entire antidepressant and COX-2 classes of drugs. When critics raise their voice, brands should examine the evidence. The tone at the top of the organisation is critical if this kind of risk-management exercise is to preserve the brand's reputation and the company's integrity. Demonstrate your commitment to finding answers. Don't hide from the media or your customers. Answer the tough questions. Find a way to work with your critics to find solutions. And if your critics are wrong, say so and prove it or be prepared to live with ambiguity until more is known.

  1. Downplay or ignore potential risks, rather than address them, and create context for them, proactively

Experts, regulators and critics all ask the same question these days when risk is suggested but statistical power is insufficient to confirm it: Is there a signal? The signal might suggest heightened risk for heart attack, suicide, liver or renal failure. The key question to ask here is: what do we know about this drug or class and what do we need to learn more about? Downplaying a critical risk or failing to proactively address it can cripple not only the brand but the company, too. The reality of the current environment is that brands are becoming more valuable and more vulnerable. Failing to take decisive action on this question can lead to profound vulnerability.

  1. Promise miracles, rather than realistic improvements

All patients want the same thing: an honest discussion about their illness and treatment options. Overreaching can take two roads: the brand works for everyone or the brand makes those for whom it does work better than well. Both roads can lead to robust trial but also treatment failure. Blockbuster medications treating chronic diseases often suffer this fate. Rather than promising miracles, brand teams should help their customers understand which patient is right for their medication as early as possible to build satisfaction and loyalty. This approach alleviates the next problemÖ

  1. Fuel marketing wars not a patient-centered agenda

My brand is better than your brand has fueled countless advertisements and public relations activities. Marketing wars are usually built on a grain of truth, and a grainier picture of patients' information needs. Most marketing wars fuel only business stories with little if any real context for patients and their information needs. The studies that support them are typically underpowered statistically and internal medical and legal teams are first to point out their limitations. Marketing wars can make brands more vulnerable by raising new questions or reinforcing existing concerns. Brand teams can spend their communications dollars more effectively creating an enduring positive agenda that drives understanding, optimism, and meaning of the brand message and maintaining a patient focus, even in the face of negative news.

  1. Forget that corporate reputation matters when making brand decisions

This one is hard to forget. Still, risk is difficult to eliminate, which is why compliance departments are powerful. Every brand makes a statement about the company, and how we communicate about brands can have a huge impact on how the company is perceived. Think of your brand as a reflection of the corporate mission, credo and reputation. What does the company stand for? What does your communication about a brand - to the media, physicians, patients, employees, investors - say about your company and its character?

  1. Create a clinical investigation agenda that is divorced from marketplace realities

The reality is that regulators, doctors and patients want information that often isn't available about a drug for many years. Yet they frequently approve, prescribe and use the product based on eight- to 12-week clinical trials. While most companies are committed to building a large body of knowledge about their products, some important questions go unaddressed for years. For example, how does a new product compare to the gold standard? What do we know about a new product's long-term use? Would it work better in combination with another drug? In the information age, adverse event registries may inform customers and doctors in inappropriate and misleading ways. But clinical studies and their interpretation can do the same. Shaping a brand and a market requires a commitment to rigorous science and rigorous and open communication. We are moving in that direction more vigorously than at any time in recent memory but not without some trepidation. Such change urged upon it by so many stakeholders requires more of everyone.

the authors

Richard Chamberlain president
Deborah Cohen managing partner
Chamberlain Communications Group, a founding partner of GLOBALHealth PR

2nd September 2008

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