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Listen, learn and lift off

By Danny Buckland

Listen, learn and take off

There was certainty around launches – the preparation, research, message testing, then the final countdown all followed a measured path.

They were industry set-pieces that drew an audience that watched the vapour trail as a new therapy locked onto its destination.

The pandemic storms have changed the atmospherics of product launches, which now fire off at all angles and timings – like a box of fireworks introduced to a stray match.

Their launch trajectories can be unpredictable and they are landing on terrain that shifts and heaves with economic, workforce and healthcare system friction.

Despite the disruption, a new suite of digital channels and engagement strategies have emerged, and the prime objective is keeping healthcare professionals (HCPs) and patients at the heart of mission control remains.

Yet, anxiety swirls around strategising commercial drug launches through harnessing patient insights and data, identifying client segments, timings and the new generation of omnichannel options. While the pharmaceutical industry is often branded as a slow reactor to technological change, digital and data advances are laying the groundwork for it to display a new- found agility around launch excellence.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the European Medicines Agency (EMA) are expecting a busy year for approvals, with frantic activity in orphan diseases as gene and cell therapy breakthroughs flow from bulging pipelines. The crowded market is flush with multiple competitor products in niche areas and will benefit from fresh thinking and innovative approaches, say experts.

“There are many great opportunities around launches but they require some fundamental changes starting with pharma companies finding ways of living in the now rather than dealing in quarters or months. Responding in those time frames is not dealing in the world your customers live in, which is the here and now so you will always be playing catch up,” said Chris Grimes- Crompton, senior adviser at healthtech agency VISFO, which specialises in generating actionable insights from granular patient data and mapping scientific and digital opinion leaders.

“An organisation needs to start with a frank appraisal of where its customers are and how they want to consume information. First and foremost you need to ask your customers and you might not get the answers you expect.

“The main requirement will be having all the elements of the business pulling in the same direction. It really boils down to being truly customer-centric – all excellence programmes talk about customer-centricity but often it is from a pharma perspective. To be successful, a programme needs to involve genuine interaction and serve information to customers in a way that suits their needs.
“There is an imperative to adapt and to change quickly, not qualities readily ascribed to pharma.”

Speed up to keep up
VISFO is at the forefront of creating effective use of data and information to transform care and Grimes-Crompton believes there is a treasure trove of insights that can untie procedural straitjackets to deliver more dynamic and targeted launches.

“If you stick to set methods and processes they can act like an anchor dragging on potential,” he added. “If you think about any interaction society has with vendors then pharma is a world away from that. We live in a digital world that moves in hours, minutes and seconds. Having processes that operate on a cycle which often takes nine months, such as clinical papers, journal reviews and congresses, means that opportunities will be missed. The world will have moved on. The ability to respond should not be set in quarterly cycles; it needs to be here and now.”

He advocates greater involvement for legal and compliance teams, along with middle management, to have a truly agile approach that is not suddenly compromised by a department out of sync with its missions.

“Legal, compliance and pharmacovigilance are usually the last people to be consulted so I don’t blame them for being cautious,” he said. “Their goal is to protect the organisation, which no-one would argue with, but if you don’t include them and educate them then how are you going to move forward?

“Inertia is in the DNA of too many organisations and this impacts how they are run as well as their launch excellence.”

Grimes-Crompton believes a sharper and earlier focus on patient need combined with a deeper understanding of HCPs in condition areas are the bedrock of launch excellence. He added: “Pharma has been getting better at this and it will become even more important as industry focuses more on rare diseases. Understanding patients and issues around market access will have a positive impact on the launch trajectory of all products.

“Speed and honest conversations are the critical areas of focus now.”

Listen and respond
Kirsty Mead of Purple Agency, the international health marketing agency, believes that launch excellence requires a fresh understanding of the expectations and challenges faced by patients and HCPs.

“Pharma companies have been able to fall back on offering added-value services to HCPs but now they need to have a clear understanding and explanation of the direct benefit they are offering and explain why an HCP should even care in the first place,” she said. “Not doing this can make or break a launch.

“HCPs are super stressed and time-poor in the current environment, so will fall back on habit and familiarity with tried and tested outcomes that reduce any additional workload for the NHS. For new products, we need to communicate what the benefit is, while showing empathy to the current situation.

“Because of this we have had to adapt how we communicate with them, so rather than conversations heavily weighted to what a pharma company wants to talk about, we must present product benefits and information in small, digestible chunks that take minimum time to understand. You can only do that effectively by listening to what your target customer says from the outset and taking that into consideration with all future strategy and tactical planning.

“Armed with those insights, you can work with clients to build tactics that make it easier for the HCP to take on board without interfering with their work.”

Purple Agency, a part of HH Global, has experience in launching products in the health spectrum, from sickness to wellness from intervention to prevention from animal to human. Its approach is to find evidence, craft the story and execute plans that drive brands success while considering the customers’ worlds.

Check your channels
The channels used at launch are crucial, Mead added. Content, such as podcasts, that can be consumed in spare moments on travel to and from work, is performing well.

“We’ve launched products recently with a greater focus on digital communications rather than face-to-face discussions, in fact the whole industry has and now, post-COVID-19, this has changed the way we talk with our audience altogether,” said Mead.

“If you can generate robust market research that highlights the challenges individual target audiences face, you can create a strong launch foundation.”

Mead still believes HCPs will demand data and learning from face-to-face engagements for new-in-class therapy launches but emphasises that appreciable gains can be achieved from customising and tailoring approaches.

“We have to think about different types of HCPs differently,” she said. “They have different priorities that need to be focused on when launching new products.”

Cheryl Harrison Doyle, global asset strategy director at Lucid, agrees that insights need to come earlier in the product cycle to stand out in an increasingly crowded marketplace – the orphan drug market is on a trajectory from a value of $190.8m in 2021 to $248.2bn by 2026, according to analysts Research and Markets.

“We’re all used to operating at phase 2 and 3 but for greater impact we need to be going much earlier,” she said. “A phase 1 study might be wholly led by a clinical development team without necessarily connecting with other teams when you really need insights on whether it will be a commercially viable option or whether you will be something like 13th to market with very little differentiating qualities. The question that needs addressing is: ‘Are you comfortable piling millions in resources into development paths without fully considering the endgame?’

“We are regularly uncovering that companies are not speaking to patients during clinical development and phase 1. They may have a clear idea of what they see as the clinical outcomes but they don’t necessarily know what that means in the real world for the patient.

“Industry has got better at patient insights but is still bringing them in far too late, either just before or after launch. But if we know more about them, their families, their carers and what their treatment goals are, it can lead to better trial design and more effective launches.
“Understanding of the personalised outcomes that are very important for our patients, HCPs, payers and other stakeholder needs to be built in as part of the launch plan really early on.”

The pandemic has made it harder for integration across big organisations and Harrison Doyle feels industry is only just emerging into the light of
more fluid internal collaborations that can help organisations work in sync and move beyond well-thumbed launch playbooks.

Talk launch early and often
“It is a very exciting time with a huge amount of potential for change and improvement,” said Harrison Doyle. “That has completely changed and we’re now launching regularly thanks to huge advancements in rare diseases, which need bespoke approaches.

“It is a time to shake up the way we think about traditional methods. It might not involve transforming entire methodologies but we can look for incremental changes and the potential is incredibly exciting.

“Orphan products are a huge focal point of some of our conversations within Lucid and we’re seeing great amounts of opportunity at the moment. Product launches in this area also present commercial challenges as they involve patients that are difficult to reach spread far and wide, with very few experts who you are able to work with. Added to that is the complexity of multiple products entering the arena.

“This underscores why it is so important to get a seat at the table early on in development so that an organisation can build methodologies and measurements that stand a better chance of working at launch.”

An environment with ongoing uncertainty and new approaches being brought to bear can be a daunting climate to operate in, but M3’s executive vice president Tim Russell believes agility is key.

“Numerous companies have restructured their sales teams and marketing and commercial functions with pharma becoming leaner. They are being asked to do the same amount of work with less resource, essentially, which adds pressure. Alternative channels to reach HCPs and the power of data can and do compensate to a point. COVID-19 has shown us this.

“I sense concern but I think a slight shift in mindset is all that is needed because if something is not quite working, you can very quickly course correct based on data and experience. The ability to be agile is key – don’t ignore the signs, react quickly and decisively”

Clear focus on goals and KPIs
M3 has the world’s largest network of verified doctors, with more than six million members across key markets. It is adept at taking the pulse of HCPs and has analysed the post-pandemic evolution of pharma/HCP digital interactions.

The goal of targeting leading clinicians and KOL face-to-face engagements, and building on established relationships, is still a pharma sweet spot but digital capabilities also liberate new channels to reach broader audiences that are still important to launch success.

“We had a recent brief where the client wanted to go beyond oncology and into dermatology and general surgery and you need to use digital channels to achieve that reach,” said Russell. “It’s the same amount of work to reach 3,000 doctors as it is for reaching one. Creating a piece of content with that in mind and publishing it many ways across multiple channels will get maximum return on investment.

“There is now an open-mindedness to use a range of a channels, including consulting third- party doctor and medical communities so it is all about balancing the content. You still have to create a hook so people want to view the content but it doesn’t need to be complicated – you just need to think ahead. Why would a doctor see your content as valuable, and how can it help them? What is the best way to position that content for maximum effect?

“The issue is that not many organisations are doing this very well. They’re just not thinking far enough ahead or doing enough due diligence to make sure they are using the right channels and, maybe, they are not investing the time and effort where they should be. What are you trying to achieve, and what is the most efficient way of making that happen?

“There should be a clear focus on what the goals are, with set KPIs and pathways to meet or exceed them.”
Establishing clear routes from pre-launch through to post-launch that have inbuilt flexibility will serve organisations well as they prospect across new disease conditions landscapes, he believes.

“There are now a lot of co-promotions between companies, which are leading to more launches in oncology, in particular PD1 inhibitors, which have a vast amount of new partners in the form of concomitant medication to maximise outcomes. These updates are happening rapidly and regularly,” Russell observed. “But budgets may be tight based on the niche positioning of the molecule(s). Hence how to maximise launch and use those budgets wisely? Thinking very early on about channel mix and content strategy is key.”

Use data and the full toolbox
The real power available for product launches is the wealth of data that can drive insights and shapes content which can be delivered. “You should always let the data guide you, but you need the right data to get the outputs that guide where a business should go,” Russell added.

“I think pharma just has to get accustomed to using all the channels and data that is available and combining that with their expertise and experience.”

Axiom Europe, the scientific engagement and training specialists, went straight to the well for insights by surveying and interviewing HCPs in depth to discover what is important – and what is off-putting – about launches.

“One of the key learnings is that face-to-face engagements continue to be valued, especially when it comes to information around new products,” said Madelaine Allen, head of Axiom Europe. “This has a significant impact on launch success.

“The other key learning is that face-to-face opportunities are no longer a given – they are a gift. But, if you craft a track record of bringing them something new and of value, the doors will open. HCPs want to know what’s coming down the pipeline and be on top of new information so meeting face to face will continue to have a place alongside other channels.

“The challenge is to make sure your in-person meetings have real value.”

Use insights to target resources
Allen strongly believes that field teams need targeted training and skills development so they can develop independence and responsibility to respond to HCPs and their needs.

“We train our field teams on how they engage with HCPs, across all channels, as well as equipping them with scientific knowledge and content,” she said. “Focusing solely on the sell is not going to drive the best engagement and customer behaviour change.

“Learning from the HCP feedback is ultimately where we see the shift in terms of launch success. The credibility of the field teams is paramount because that is what allows you to get in to talk about a new product. HCPs want to see someone who knows their stuff and understands their patients and local conditions.”

Many organisations have reduced sales teams or are transforming them into more MSL-focused roles, and skills acquisition is being seen as a core investment. Axiom Europe also favours the academy approach for launches to enable teams to immerse themselves in knowledge and understanding.

“This is not just talking about the product,” added Allen. “It’s learning about the disease, the patient and the ecosystem around them. We’re seeing more launches that are first-to-market so more companies are bringing in academies and spaces where people can learn about that disease, its indications and the patient journey.”

Allen sees targeted investment of resources across the launch spectrum as another area that companies can put under the microscope. “In the past, there’s been a tendency to hold back on resources and allocate them fairly late to launch or spread them too thinly by trying to do everything.

“But in a new era with new insights, it should be easier to target resources for the best results.” These are operational refinements rather than a bonfire of practices in pharma – industry has accelerated the pace of adoption of digital tools for bespoke engagements and is hungry for agility.

“It is not the death of sales forces but we need to have smarter ‘field teams’ who have the right tools and skills to make decisions on how to approach their HCPs and what channels to use. We need to empower them,” said Allen. “They are there to demonstrate how a company can help HCPs and their patient cohorts. They need to have richer conversations.

“I think the time is right for organisations to be more streamlined but bolder at launch, providing they have the right insights.

“But there needs to be a much more positive approach which runs from hiring the right people to upskilling them and giving them the right tools. We also need to measure them in the right way because, if we continue to measure people by the simple metric of ‘how many times did you visit
a doctor or speak to them via video call to share the messages?’, we are not going to drive the right behaviours or have those valuable interactions with HCPs which are critical to any launch.”

Danny Buckland is a journalist specialising in the healthcare industry

Danny Buckland is a journalist specialising in the healthcare industry

22nd April 2022

From: Marketing

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