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Are you a remora fish or a bird on a hippo?

Is pharma driven through customer centric marketing or is it too reliant on product development?

A bird sitting on a hippopotamusAll of us can probably remember learning about symbiotic relationships in our school science class. It's the common occurrence of two organisms – often different species – living together in a relationship that has varying degrees of benefit for each.

In the truly symbiotic relationship, both parties gain an advantage by sticking together. For example, birds ride along on the backs of hippopotami eating insects. The birds are delighted by the plentiful supply of food, and the hippos are pleased to be bug free with little effort on their parts.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, one party thrives while the other suffers: tapeworms in the stomachs of animal carriers, for instance. There's palpable relief when the imposing party goes away!

In the middle, there's the case in which one party benefits but the other neither gains nor loses. For example: Remora fish attach themselves to sharks, swim around with them, and eat their leftovers – but the sharks remain completely indifferent. When the fish move on, the sharks don't lose any sleep over it.

So which do you want to be? The symbiotic relationship between customers and the pharma industry is not new and, in recent years, has become an integral part of the marketing mix, but can it be maintained?

1. Patent expiries and a reduction in the number of innovative R&D pipeline products has placed a greater emphasis on a company's approach to retaining customer loyalty and nurturing key customer relationships.

2. The explosion of the web and online networking has increased access to information and opinion and provides new ways for industry to engage and grow relationships with key customers, albeit at arms length.

3. Mergers, acquisitions and restructures have the potential to remove or destroy existing long-standing relationships between customers and pharmaceutical employees.

These factors have led to a new and  pressing focus for engaging with, and developing customers through, arms-length communications such as the internet.

Recent changes in the ABPI guidelines, now allow for increased customer communication via online activities and, with 93 per cent of all primary care physicians accessing the web for scientific information, this is increasingly becoming a preferred platform to deliver marketing campaigns. But is this all a company can do? A symbiotic relationship infers that it's one between two living organisms.

Can pharma companies ever be truly customer centric?
Customer centricity is described as being 'an approach to marketing based on a detailed knowledge of customer behaviour within the target audience, which then seeks to fulfil the individual needs and wants of customers'.

The majority of pharmaceutical marketers in the UK will no doubt inherit responsibility for marketing a product derived from a product pipeline, derived from a series of compounds that showed interesting pharmaceutical properties. This product centric approach is part and parcel (in the main) of working within the industry. So where then does customer centric marketing begin if the products aren't designed specifically around the customers' needs?

Large proportions of the marketing spend in pharma are dedicated to 'about us' efforts: training the sales force, creating brochures, building exhibition booths, and/or developing websites and print ads to tell customers about the brands and their implied benefits. Brand awareness is one of the cornerstones of a successful campaign, but it's only one element. In isolation these kinds of marketing communications don't do companies any favours in helping a customer distinguish products or companies. Most of us have probably been in a situation when their branding or product proposition is mistaken for somebody else's, eg, in market research or during a conversation with a KOL. So what does help companies differentiate themselves so that they can align themselves more closely with the customer?

The key of customer centric marketing is to develop a platform based on detailed knowledge of target customer behaviour, so that you can fulfil their needs and wants. Know who they are, ask the right questions and create a company environment that supports and maintains customer interaction.

1, 2, 3 to customer centricity…
STEP 1: Be sure you are still in touch with who your target audience is. If necessary, undertake a benchmarking or profiling exercise.

Knowing who your target customers are may seem like common sense, but even experienced therapeutic brand champions can fall behind the changes in the market. New KOLs emerge, opinion changes and new collaborations form on a daily basis.

KOL profiling is a process by which thought leaders in a certain therapy area are ranked and benchmarked according to their activity in research, publications history, affiliation to certain representative bodies, activity at congresses and interactions with the industry. Companies may or may not undertake KOL profiling when they enter a new market, but most companies don't take stock after they have been involved in a therapeutic area for a while, to see if the landscape has changed.

STEP 2: Ask the right questions, which not only reflect the product and services offered by you but also account for the customer's professional  needs.

Knowing who your target audience is gets you on the first rung on the ladder. To pass go and collect your £200, you need to ask the right questions. Not just product centric questions, but also customer centric questions. For example, traditionally advisory boards have focused on the question of "What do you need/want from our products and services?". This has merit, but to fully service relationships, the customer needs to be catered for by the organisation as a whole. A more customer centric approach is to ask: "What do you need/want from us as a company to better help you do your job, now and in the future?"

STEP 3: Create a customer centric environment to support the product outside of marketing.

What's the point of identifying the right target audience and identifying what they expect of you if they then have a bad experience of dealing with your company? How will your typical customer feel when he or she interacts with your company? Stand in the shoes of your customers – how does your company rate?

The six habits listed below distinguish the truly customer centric organisations from a company that merely thinks a lot about its customers. Score and see how you rate.


Questionnaire covering the six habits of customer centric organisations

Download the six habits of customer centric organisations (pdf)


So how did your company do? This is not rocket science. All it takes is a little more thinking and a little more attention to detail. More importantly, how do you think your competitors would do? Look at each of the questions where you scored less than four and see whether you should be doing more to make your customer feel valued.

Having done all that, organisational change is probably outside the scope of a marketers role ("No" I hear you cry, "Bring it on!") but by involving people from all facets of the organisation that may be customer facing in things like advisory boards and workshops (and even visits to key centres), a degree of organisational flex may be achievable.

An example of organisational flex is the evolving role of support lines, originally developed for patients. These support lines now often provide valuable support to healthcare professionals. Managers from the support line teams can attend advisory board meetings to discuss the service as it stands and additional services that could be provided, including support materials and follow-up programmes to aid concordance.

Succession planning: it's not just an internal exercise…
The more interaction a customer has with a company, the more likely the customer is to rely on key individuals within the organisation. One of the exciting but challenging aspects of working in the pharma industry is that it's a very fluid, dynamic environment. While this makes for exciting career pathways, the frequent movement of marketers, mergers and restructures of organisations makes a customer centric approach more difficult.

During restructures, the focus is mainly on the redistribution of funds to make sure the company is operating at a profit and that sufficient cover is afforded to marketing. Viewing the marketing role as a headcount issue or a commodity does not account for the inherent value of the company's relationship with key individuals. Developing rapport with key centres and KOLs takes time and effort. This itself adds monetary value to the relationships.

When I changed jobs as a business development manager, I had a month's handover period. This ensured all key customers were aware of my move, and in most situations, met my replacement.

The transition was smooth and the relationship between customer and company was constant.

In most situations in pharma marketing, succession planning only has an internal focus. Rarely does a handover of KOLs and key centres occur. But if this has always been the case, why does it matter? I think the answer lies in the way the industry has changed by virtue of the types of products it promotes. The majority of growth in the industry is now driven by speciality products such as bio-pharmaceuticals and orphan drugs. The customer base for these lower volume, higher cost agents is much smaller, therefore the sphere of influence one customer has, is proportionally much higher. With primary care marketing, a large amorphous customer base usually had several marketers, looking after different aspects of the marketing mix. This has been replaced with key senior marketers taking sole responsibility for all customer communications.

How can companies treat the relationship as an asset? Effectively like any asset, knowing sufficient details and ensuring the correct information is saved, passed on and then developed, the company can protect that asset and the inherent value contained in it. This brings us back to having a customer centric approach rather than a product or organisational centric approach. Value the customers and value the relationship. Have a handover period and, if that's not an option, manage the gap by supporting the customer through another key contact, eg, the medical department or your agency who have a relationship with your key customers.

Finally customer relationship management (CRM) software has been added successfully to the mix in a number of pharma companies. A good database is the basic backbone of managing customer relationships – beyond the expected lifecycle of a product manager. If the organisation is developing in a customer centric way, the panacea of a good database is capturing interactions, whoever they may be with in the organisation, and making those interactions available and transparent to others.

• A symbiotic, customer centric relationship is between two living organisms
• Target and validate your customers on a regular basis and ask the right questions
• Manage relationships and succession plan to avoid losing key customers
• Involve other non-marketing sectors within the organisation to take a customer centric approach
• Capture information at every turn in a central, transparent system.

The Authors
Jon Hallows is marketing director at Porterhouse Medical
He can be contacted at or on +44 (0)118 913 9100
To comment on this article, email

17th November 2009


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