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Saving lives

Pharma does more than sell pills, we are in the life-enhancement business
A boatWithin the pharmaceutical industry, we all know that times are hard, as financial pressures combined with negative feedback from key stakeholders begins to take its toll. Few industries can claim to be in the business of saving and enhancing life, so why the criticism and hostility? Perhaps the answer to this question lies in the word 'business'. As John Fraser-Robinson said, the aim of a business is to serve its customers, the result is to make money.

What is our business?
As members of the pharmaceutical industry we agree unashamedly that we are a business but which business are we in?

Once upon a time the chairman of a motorbike company asked the same question, he believed that a lot of the issues they were experiencing in their market were a direct result of answering it incorrectly. Conventional wisdom was that they were in the motorbike business but rather than state the obvious he suggested that they were in the business of 'toys for big boys'. This alternative philosophy changed their fortunes, despite minimal changes to the core product. The marketing mix was adapted to reflect this new perspective resulting in new markets and new competitors.

They were now competing with luxury goods and lifestyle products such as high quality watches and exotic holidays - rather than other motorbike firms. They had managed to understand the difference between what they make and what they sell.

Selling pills
Consider two companies with very different perspectives. Company A is in the business of selling pills and it invests heavily in an army of sales representatives to facilitate this. They insist on their people talking about impact on patients because this helps to accelerate sales.

Measurement of representative productivity is largely based on how many health professionals and payers they visited and whether they deliver well-researched messages accurately. The company invests a significant amount in understanding these customers but insights often appear sales-focused. They develop solutions to enhance their core product but these tend towards selling their services rather than adding value to their service.

Segmentation is performed on the basis of high, medium and low prescribers as supposed to the need of individual prescribers. In addition, direct-to-patient communication tends to be about how to usher them in the direction of their pills as opposed to telling them how to avoid particular ailments and live healthier lives.

Life enhancement
Company B is in the life-enhancement business. They recruit and deploy reps who are as motivated by sales as they are by the difference their efforts are making to real lives. Their reps are paid to promote the value of their products for the end user while enhancing doctors' capacity to meet their patients' needs.

You are likely to see this company putting as much effort into the prevention of the ailment they treat as they do selling their core product. R&D for this company still begins in the laboratory but it doesn't end there and they continually seek ways to improve patients' lives.

They target prescribers according to potential need - rather than track record - and in addition they consider the needs of their prescribers and their capacity to meet those needs as an integral part of their targeting strategy.

Resource allocation
Most will recognise elements of both companies within their organisation. Both approaches save lives and make profits. When we have distilled all the arguments about the amount of money invested in R&D versus marketing spend, it boils down to how resources are allocated and the importance placed on particular activities.

We are all familiar with the effort we put into delivering our key messages but are less aware as to whether or not this is meeting customers' needs. Six calls a year on high target health professionals certainly drives sales but the long-term effect is to frustrate rather than engage them.

Identify the customer
Perhaps we need to consider whether our true customers are healthcare professionals, shareholders or patients. The conflict that results from trying to appease these three groups at the same time is getting in the way of our ability to sell life- enhancement rather than simply drugs.

The Author
Baba Awopetu
is manager, brand strategy, EMEA at Stryker and a visiting lecturer at the Marketer's Forum, Akin Sawyerr, is life sciences and consumer products head at  DHL Worldwide Express, North Africa region and Marcus Deans is a marketing consultant for SIR Consultancy

If you have any comments or queries about this feature please email

7th July 2008


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