Sanjay Mehta is Joint CEO, Mirum India. He is responsible for driving a strategic focus to growth for Mirum India, which involves identifying key areas of opportunity, and enabling business development and planning to achieve the goals. Sanjay has been one of the earliest Internet entrepreneurs in India. His baby steps into digital came when he co-founded Homeindia.com, an e-commerce venture that sold ethnic Indian products to customers all over the world, in 1998. Nine years of bootstrapping that venture saw Sanjay learn and master various aspects of digital, from design and development to digital marketing, and commerce. Social Wavelength, now know as Mirum, was his next venture, after divesting out of Homeindia.com.
There have always been specific nuances to pharma marketing, which are unlike marketing in most other domains. The fact that the sector has a strong regulatory framework when it comes to communication that pharma companies can do, puts the first set of constraints in marketing. Depending on whether a pharma product is a pure OTC product or a prescription product or sits somewhere in the middle, decides whether a pharma company can openly promote it in marketing, or not.
Several products, irrespective of whether they are prescription (Rx) types or OTC, are best sold under a doctor’s recommendation. In such cases, it is a pharma company’s endeavour to impress the relevant doctors (referred to as Healthcare Professionals or HCPs) about their product. In other instances, depending on whether it is a direct patient who decides on the purchase, or a caregiver does so (that is the case, either for therapies which are for severe ailments where the patient is not able to decide for himself, or in cases of say, infants and young children, where perhaps parents decide on the behalf of the patient), the marketing effort needs to be addressed suitably.
Several products that are officially considered as pharma products, actually sit very close to FMCG types, e.g. the nutraceutical range of offerings. And in such cases, the marketing approach is closer to FMCG marketing.
While all of these have been in place and relevant for long, there are changes that have happened over the last few years, and especially across the last 18 months or so, through the pandemic period. This article will discuss some of these paradigm shifts that we have seen in recent times, when it comes to pharma marketing. Some of the key developments of change are as under:
- One of the typical methods for pharma companies to reach across to HCPs was via their field force of marketing representatives (MRs). Busy HCPs always had very little time for such MRs, even ordinarily. This situation got worse through the initial months of lockdown, when HCPs were meeting the fewest of people. And this habit has persisted even after lockdown period has gone, and clinics and hospitals have resumed operations. There is a need for pharma marketing to figure reasonable alternatives and options to the traditional MR visits.
- Another way for pharma companies to connect with HCPs was via medical events, where the pharma companies would take up booths or speaker slots, to get an opportunity to engage with HCPs. Right through the last 18 months, larger events have almost not happened at all. While slowly, some of these are resuming, chances are that the scale of events and frequency of these, may not match up to the pre-pandemic times. Pharma marketing needs to figure alternative ways to reach HCPs.
- Like other professionals and consumers, even HCPs had gradually been increasing their extent of digital consumption, both for personal and professional purposes. Sitting at home for long durations in the lockdown period, and with the continuing need to stay in touch with the profession as well as patients and hospitals, accelerated the increased digital consumption habits for doctors. This included the inputs that they started getting in respect to new pharma products, and related details on those. With the result that now, digital is a critical part of their content consumption, and pharma marketing has to take this into account, and find a way to connect with HCPs, using digital means.
- Whether it is traditional media or digital media, the fundamental restrictions based on regulatory framework, for pharma marketing, still apply. Which means that, certain type of marketing content can only be shown to HCPs and not to the patients directly. That being the case, what have emerged as useful means to connect back to the HCPs, is by means of dedicated communities for HCPs. These are gated online communities, where HCPs are verified before being given access. Through content partnerships and other means, pharma marketing is able to reach HCPs via such online communities.
- Sensing the need for continuing medical education needs of HCPs on the one hand, and the need to have them familiarised with their products, some progressive pharma companies are also setting up their own dedicated communities for HCPs, where they are trying to provide a lot of useful knowledge and information that an HCP would need. That is one way of connecting to HCPs, who come for their own needs, but in the process, the pharma company is also able to put out their own relevant communications.
- Like any other consumer of content, the HCP is also flooded with a whole host of digital communication, and for something to interest him / her, it needs to be relevant, personalised and timely. This is where marketing automation and other martech approaches come in. These ensure that only the most relevant communication gets to the HCP, who values the same then, and also engages with the pharma marketing, basis the same.
- Pharma companies will need to significantly transform their marketing efforts, using digital first CRM, investing in high quality data management, and considering the field force of MRs as a supporting system, and not the starting point.
- From an HCP’s point of view, pharma marketing needs to offer a consistent omnichannel experience to the HCP, and which again demands, a high level of dependence on digital technology to achieve the same.
- There is a very critical role also played by influencers, especially in certain categories. For vaccination products or other baby related pharma products, for example, mom-bloggers are a big influence. Connecting and engaging with them, and enabling them to create content that takes the brand messages forward, is an integral part of today’s pharma marketing puzzle.
- For pharmaceutical companies to continue thriving, they need to engage with patients, who are becoming more aware of their health and are more focused on holistic health outcomes. This means expanding their offerings and capabilities to beyond drugs with a focus on continuous patient outcomes, using behavioural insights to drive how they market specific drugs, and using the appropriate channels to deliver the right information.
Pharma marketing is evolving and is getting more and more impacted by use of data and technology on the one hand, as also adapting means that are more closely associated to FMCG marketing, on the other. The need of the hour for pharma companies, it to be agile, continue to learn and adapt, be open to using technology means, and stay ahead in a competitive market.