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Quick out of the blocks

In the race for product recognition, it pays to start people talking as soon as possible

Q: How early on in a product's development can you start to make a commercial difference to a new brand or product?
As soon as the molecule leaves the lab - even before proof of concept. This is because customers, especially opinion leaders, won't wait for companies to be ready with phase III data before they position the product through word of mouth.

Also, change takes time. It takes the best part of a year to get a new idea injected into an opinion network, for example through a paper or congress, and then a year or more for that idea to disseminate. For the most powerful change, this idea will need to be built on several times, meaning the cycle needs to be repeated one or more times. Starting two years out from launch just won't leave enough time for this to happen.

Q: Are pharmaceutical companies currently leaving it too late to begin commercialisation?
The short answer is yes, but in most cases this isn't the result of a lack of willingness on the part of the marketers. There are several reasons for the time lag: organisationally, the commercial teams are yet not 'in charge' of the molecule; traditional promotional techniques don't sit well at the very early stage; and, it's always tempting to wait for more data to remove the unknowns.

Q: What benefits are there to influencing the messages before the product branding is rolled out?
With shrinking pipelines and hostile healthcare environments, industry leaders realise that earlier commercialisation is key to maximising product value. A study from the business school, INSEAD, showed that a product's long-term success is most reliant on its rate of adoption immediately after launch - within the first nine months, in fact. Clearly, it's vital that the product and market are prepared well before launch.

Q: How do you create these early `positioning' messages, and how do you deliver them in a multi-national 'forum'?
To get the most out of pre-launch messaging you need to challenge the standard industry approach of coercing opinion leaders into either promoting product messages or blindly raising the awareness of the disease or condition.

A more sophisticated and effective approach harnesses one of the three laws of word of mouth marketing: for a product to be successful, the way customers think about the disease needs to be shaped to that particular brand. We call this the 'disease story'.

Once you have a disease story, even the most respected international opinion leaders will be happy to discuss it in advisory boards, present it at congresses and write about it in journals. This creates commercial advantage without even mentioning a product by name.

Developing a disease story isn't easy though. It needs to be interesting (otherwise no-one will remember it or pass it on), credible and yet most relevant in 10 years' time when your brand is at peak sales.

You need to find a way of looking into the future while balancing that against the reality of today. For me it's the most interesting and rewarding part of the job. How many people get to shape the future of medicine?

Q: Using this approach, how do you maintain control over messaging?
This is both the beauty and the paradox of word of mouth marketing. Because it relies on the impartiality of those making the recommendation, the more you try to force it, the less powerful it becomes. However, if you understand the dynamics and workings of `word of mouth', you can create the circumstances in which the right disease story will flourish and even take on a momentum of its own.

The key is engaging the right opinion leaders. By `engaging' I mean a genuine give and take collaboration, not just subjecting them to your ideas and data. If they're really world experts, they'll help design a better disease story than would otherwise have been possible.

To find the right opinion leaders you need to take into account which word of mouth skills the opinion leader has, as well as their adoption of innovation profile. Without this understanding it's a bit like making a cake with the wrong ingredients.

Q: Having recognised and nurtured market opinion years before a planned launch, how do you then use this knowledge in your campaign down the line?
Let me turn that around. Most experienced marketers will have managed a product where, before they could sell the brand, they had to change opinion about a disease in order to create a need or point of difference. In these cases product adoption gets delayed, playing into competitors' hands.

If, however, the disease story has already been established through the previous management of international opinion, the promotional focus can be on selling the brand and not the disease, leading to faster product adoption and greater long-term success.

The author
Matt Rowley is a managing partner at central (

2nd September 2008


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