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Smart Thinking blog

Insights and expert advice on the key issues facing today’s pharma marketer

Add innovative spirit to the marketing mix

Innovation has always played an important part in the pharma industry, but what are the challenges in developing innovative ideas and driving innovation into marketing plans?

What is innovation?

At its most basic level, innovation is simply the implementation of new ideas. In fact, it is often confused with creativity. A good explanation of the difference between the two comes from Theodore Levitt, an American economist and professor at Harvard Business School, who said: 'Creativity is thinking up new things. Innovation is doing new things.'

For example, though social media is used as a part of the healthcare media mix, it is not a new idea. However, Johnson & Johnson (J&J) innovated in utilising a range of new media to achieve marketing objectives across a range of its healthcare brands:

•  In Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), it sponsors a Facebook page to build awareness of adults with ADHD called ADHD Allies

•  Plus there is the ADHD Moms Facebook page for mothers of children with ADHD, which has attracted thousands of fans since its launch

•  Then there is the J&J health channel on YouTube, which provides educational videos for a range of conditions, including ADHD, that has over 4,000 subscribers currently, with over 470,000 channel views and almost four million upload views in just three years.

The IBM personal computer was an innovation that changed both the computer industry and society's attitude to computers. Yet the IBM personal computer contained no new 'inventions'; indeed, the team creating it was charged with taking 'off-the-shelf' components and bringing them together in an inexpensive and user-friendly way, which was suitable for home use.

A good start point for innovation is to focus thinking on the key challenges, opportunities and problems facing brands, gaining a clear understanding of the issues and what needs to be changed.

An example of this focused innovation is the bladeless Air Multiplier fan from Dyson, which developed out of a defect in the Airblade, the company's energy-efficient hand drier. Despite its jet-like exhaust, engineers noticed that the Airblade was actually trapping a large amount of air inside. Curious about this failure, they questioned what could be done with this trapped high-speed air and, using an airfoil-shaped ramp, they succeeded in amplifying the airflow 15 times, creating a smooth, powerful airflow, with no need for fast-spinning blades.

However, many organisations are not great at innovation. Often, rules are followed too rigidly, seriously limiting the motivation to do things differently. The position is: 'but that's the way things are'. Those charged with coming up with improving the way the organisation works often fear their suggestions will be seen as wrong, impractical or too 'off-the-wall', perhaps because those in positions of authority are too quick to criticise, make instant judgements and, above all, lack vision.

Companies can tend to look at new ideas through the lens of what has been done before and look to the future in the context of what has gone before, using existing assumptions and models as the starting point. The result is often a series of incremental improvements to existing products or processes, simply trying to refine or rehash old ideas, but more efficiently.

In the words of Rosabeth Moss Kanter, American business speaker and consultant: 'Mindless habitual behaviour is the enemy of innovation.'

The process
The innovation process can be seen as having three distinct stages: invention, translation and commercialisation. This three-stage concept was first outlined by Bruce D Merrifield, US Assistant Secretary of Commerce, in a speech entitled 'Forces of change affecting high technology industries', as long ago as 1986:

Scavenging ideas, learning from others' successes and failures, both inside and outside healthcare, can work well

1. Invention
The starting point in building innovation into marketing, the invention stage, is to identify and isolate specific ideas, which could be used to address identified brand challenges, however outlandish they may seem, irrespective of whether they may work or not. This can be done in a group setting, in a workshop or 'brainstorming' session. Valuable fuel for developing ideas comes from looking at case studies to explore what others have done when addressing similar challenges. Scavenging ideas, learning from others' successes and failures, both inside and outside healthcare, can work well. As Thomas Edison stated: "Keep on looking for novel ideas that others have used successfully. Your idea has to be original only in its adaptation to the problem you are working on."

Specific creative thinking tools, such as 'reversal' or 'random stimulus', can also add real value in triggering ideas.

The aim is to generate a wide range of ideas. In the initial stages, it is crucial not to get mired in the precise detail of any ideas suggested, nor to be overly judgmental.

The next stage is to isolate the key ideas with sufficient promise to develop further. If there are still too many, apply simple screening rules, such as rejecting those that will take too long to implement (perhaps more than a year) and select only those deemed to be 'innovative'.

2. Translation/idea building
'A new idea is delicate. It can be killed by a sneer or a yawn; it can be stabbed to death by a joke, or worried to death by a frown on the right person's brow,' wrote Charles H Brower in Advertising Age.

'Greenhousing' helps protect delicate 'seedling' ideas, just as a greenhouse protects young plants from the elements, allowing them to grow. The idea behind greenhousing is to develop and adapt the idea to address the business challenge to make it workable while not being critical or identifying what is wrong. It is, therefore, vital to suspend judgment until the principle of the idea is fully understood.

Next, drive out the essence of the idea by considering what it is trying to achieve, what the essential components are, how the concept can be built on and what barriers need to be overcome to translate the idea into commercial reality. Above all, it is about ambition: what can be achieved by the idea?

For example, consider the idea of risk-sharing programmes for payers, the aims of which are to provide them with reassurance that their investment in a drug will deliver clinical outcomes as well as encouraging prescribers to use the product. The key components would be clinical success criteria, a refund element if success were not achieved, defined timescales, process and legal contracts as required.

3. Commercialisation or prototype development
Next, think through the detail and consider how an idea could be implemented: the commercialisation stage. The aim is to develop a commercial prototype that translates the idea into how it would work in practice. It remains important to suspend judgment at this stage and it is crucial not to decide whether the idea is affordable or sufficient implementation resource is available. Consider who will be involved (customers and internal personnel), how long the idea/process will take to set up, and what resources, capabilities and competencies will be required. In addition, assess what customers' reactions are likely to be.

In developing a prototype the checklist should consider:
•  What is the objective?

•  Who is this aimed at?

•  How will it work? (eg. inputs/outputs, monitoring)

•  Who needs to be involved? (internally, externally and for approval)

•  How long will it take to set up?

•  What resources are needed? (financial, human)

•  What are the anticipated results?

In the risk-sharing case above, developing the prototype is about the detail of the idea. For example, when such a scheme was developed for once-yearly bisphosphonates for treating osteoporosis in Germany, this involved putting in place:
•    Tracking of patients using the product
•    Measurement systems to track the number of fractures which occurred on treatment
•    Reimbursing the insurer for drug costs in patients where fractures occurred during the first year of treatment.

Using the three-stage process of invention, idea building and prototype development clarifies which ideas are the most interesting, the best fit with the product or company ambition and offer the best ROI, both locally and for global development. It also identifies the support and steps required to make it happen and keep the idea on track, resulting in a pilotable offering to take forward to the market.

Article by
Gerard Doherty

managing consultant at The MSI Consultancy

31st October 2011


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