There’s a common belief among people not familiar with the pharma industry that the COVID-19 pandemic has been a boom time for the pharmaceutical industry — and for pharma marketing as well.
The truth is more complicated for pharma marketing during the Covid-19 pandemic. World-changing circumstances offer both opportunities and challenges. Yes, the first company to deliver an effective vaccine for the novel coronavirus will see massive gains, but this chance comes at the price of lost revenue for everybody.
Since the start of COVID countermeasures in March 2020, in-person HCP visits have sharply declined across the board. They’re still way down, but as more hospitals and clinics have learned their way around telemedicine platforms, remote visits have started to make up ground.
One thing hasn’t changed much: the rate at which patients are filling their prescriptions. This isn’t too surprising: vital medication is vital medication, and there’s no evidence that a global health crisis makes people more interested in unrelated prescription meds.
Marketing in unprecedented times
How are pharma marketers responding to these trends?
Without much change in the volume of prescriptions being filled, it might seem as though pharma is the perfect pandemic-proof industry. But that rosy view ignores a big obstacle: if patients can’t meet directly with HCPs, neither can sales reps.
This is especially problematic for small and medium-sized pharma firms, which rely on in-person relationships between doctors and sales teams in order to move products and meet business goals. The old model of pharma branding relied heavily on informal networks forged at dinners, golf games, speaking engagements.
That's all out the window now, and it's led treatments to underperform at launch, sometimes massively. Michel Vounatsos, CEO of Biogen, directly blamed COVID in an earnings report for the company's new MS drug disappointing. See here
Without the name recognition of Pfizer or Eli Lilly, smaller companies must get creative to catch up with digital-first pharma marketing. The goal is to a state of digital maturity — placing digital marketing at the center of everything, rather than just using it as a tool.
Digital maturity and how to get there
The temptation for a company with a reasonable marketing budget is to pour it into traditional linear campaigns, but in our view, that's a mistake. We're looking at the pandemic as an opportunity to radically re-evaluate what the pharmaceutical world takes for granted about branding.
Much like HCPs themselves have ramped up telemedicine in 2020, a move that will benefit patients long after COVID recedes, marketers have a chance to make changes that will have a lasting impact.
Here are a few of the good habits we've noticed:
- Focusing on people over channels. Branding teams are getting better at collecting, warehousing, and applying data on HCPs and customers. This lets them make better investments with their marketing resources and tell a consistent story that appeals to each customer. Pharma marketing strategies are moving closer to meeting the needs of target customers and increase brand loyalty.
- Communicating in real time. The role of the sales rep is evolving. Both sales professionals and their customers are available online for much more of the day, meaning communication has to get more agile and more responsive.
- Mastering AI. Pharma has a reputation for being slow to adapt, but that's not how we've seen it, especially among smaller firms. Artificial intelligence is key to understanding what pharma companies' customers want without being able to meet them in person. With AI, you can analyze data, understand trends, and automate responses to what you learn.
What has really changed?
COVID hasn't forced pharma marketing to reinvent itself from scratch. Many new pharmaceutical marketing strategies are simply updated versions of old-school sales strategies — for example, using AI to target ads to an HCP is just like giving a slightly different sales pitch to each in-person customer.
We can't say for sure what pharma branding will look like in a post-pandemic world, but we're confident the tools to get there have been present all along.
Contact us to analyze your post-Covid-19 pharma marketing strategy and create your marketing plan.