Category: Pharmaceutical Marketing Strategy

Insight Capsule #2: ODM “The Psychology of Engagement” 

The Use of Engagement Customization and Personalization is Becoming Increasingly Important—in Fact Essential—in Pharmaceutical Marketing in 2022 and Beyond

Developed by Health Psychologist and ThinkGen Chief Innovation Officer Dr. Richard Vanderveer

The COVID-19 pandemic has served to speed up a trend that was already well underway in terms of the pharmaceutical industry’s promotion of its products to physicians. More specifically, the practice of a marketing team carefully developing a message for their product prior to launch, then relying on pharmaceutical sales representatives (PSRs) to deliver this message repeatedly to physicians, was increasingly being seen by doctors as being both grossly inefficient and annoying.

The coronavirus brought with it mandatory office lockdowns and pharmaceutical companies pulling their PSRs from the field, thus providing doctors with a multi-month opportunity to question their previously accepted habit of welcoming “reminder details” that took up their time while bringing them no new information.

The result? Over the past 18 months of conducting our ongoing On Doctors’ MindsSM (ODM) project, we have learned that physicians have replaced this old habit with new ones. And, rather than being the homogeneous habit of old, different doctors have developed a large variety of new and different habits in terms of their engagement with pharmaceutical companies.

As a result, numerous marketing research studies, as well as reports from leading consultancies dealing with this issue, have argued that “customization” and “personalization” of pharmaceutical companies’ promotional efforts directed at physicians are increasingly necessary. But how should the industry go about delivering on these requirements?

Over the coming months, the weekly series of Insight CapsulesSM drawn from ThinkGen’s ODM project will provide answers to these questions based on an understanding of the “psychology of engagement.” But first, a clarification of terminology:

Customization: In our work, this term refers to the recognition that different physicians have entirely different preferences as to how a pharmaceutical company should be “engaging” them. As will be developed in subsequent Insight CapsulesSM, there is not an infinite variety of such expectations, but rather a manageable set of preferences that can be characterized through Physician Engagement PersonasSM (PEP) Engagements must be customized for the PEP being addressed.

Individualization: Based on the findings of our ODM conversations with physicians, we have come to understand that this term has two important meanings. For a new product launch, for example, we need to understand where a physician with a particular PEP is along the Awareness, Interest, Trial, and Usage spectrum, and adjust our engagement offer accordingly. Also, the physician needs to see the message as being specifically produced for her. A personal email from the doctor’s PSR, as opposed to just an emailed “ad” for the product, is perceived as being of much greater value.

Omnichannel: In 2022, marketing teams have a large variety of media, both push and pull, that they can use to engage a physician. Once an engagement has been customized and individualized, the marketing team must select the most appropriate channel to employ for its delivery. In fact, the selection of a promotional channel can be an important part of the customization and individualization processes.

Subsequent Insight CapsulesSM will explore each of these concepts in far greater detail and provide physician guidance as to how each can be optimized. Meanwhile, for a taste of the types of insights we are gleaning from these conversations, watch this short video clip from one of our ODM conversations.

Want to stay updated on our findings? Subscribe to receive these Insight Capsules in your inbox by clicking here.

Insight Capsule #1: ODM “The Psychology of Engagement”

–Calibrating Promotional Spend–

Many of our clients are uncertain how to calibrate their promotional spend in the new, personalized / omnichannel paradigm of pharmaceutical promotion.

Discussions held with many of our client partners prior to the beginning of our first quarter 2022 conversations with physicians revealed substantial amounts of confusion and concern about the future of pharmaceutical promotion under a new and developing paradigm. For example, one practical issue on clients’ minds is what plans they should be making for the return of in-person promotion when the future impact of COVID variants remains uncertain.

Additionally, clients aren’t sure which Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) they should be chasing. Surveys have found that while most physicians still favor in-person detailing, a sizable minority prefer virtual details or a hybrid combination. Should physician “preference” be the driving factor here? Are we trying to optimize the increasingly popular concept of “CX” (customer experience), or maybe even trying to develop “customer loyalty?” Does customer loyalty even exist in pharmaceutical marketing, and what does it buy you? Clients are bandying about terminology like “corporate image” and “share of mind.” Where do they fit in? Clearly, clarity on these and related issues needs to be achieved for a company to get full value out of the new promotional paradigm. 

Upcoming Insight Capsules will begin to clarify physicians’ thinking on these important issues. 

It’s Simple. It’s Complicated.

Okay, it’s a new year. So once again, you can expect me to judiciously select from among Seth Godin’s posts, and to direct you to the ones I consider to be the most meaningful. Afterall, Seth’s posts are all meaningful, but some, often the simplest ones, just totally grab me. Here’s one of those. If you have a genuinely, profoundly new idea, it is argued in this post, you need to decide if it is simple or complex and pitch it accordingly. There’s a trap here. If you have a complex idea and try to communicate it all at once, you are likely to confuse the heck out of people and fail. Similarly, if you try to dumb down your complicated concept, you are likely to understate its importance. So what do you do? You view the communication of the complicated idea as a “journey,” and invite-only the “right people” to join you on the way. 

Over the course of the last year, I think I may have missed that thought while trying to teach the pharmaceutical industry to take a “Habit Engineering” (HE) approach to marketing their products to physicians. The idea here is a “simple” one. Rather than perseverate on developing one “message” to be used to support a product, HE recognizes that different story elements are required depending upon where a physician is on the Awareness/Interest/Trial/Usage continuum. Simple, right? Not so much.  This cafeteria approach is sufficiently different from what product teams are used to doing that it requires an entire redo of message development and research processes. AND. In the pandemic era, we were typically given a 30-minute Zoom meeting to communicate what turned out to be this complicated concept to potential clients. Little wonder that we often failed to get a mind-meld.

Bottom Line. Yup. We need to know if we are trying to communicate a simple idea or a complicated one, and manage our approach, and our expectations, as to what is going to be required to do so accordingly!!!

Storytelling in a Zoom Fatigued World

Check this out. What you will see is a piece on how pharma needs to work extra hard in 2021 to capture attention. Much of our population suffers from pandemic-induced Zoom fatigue. Virtually everyone is awash in streaming media from hundreds of sources. The result? The bar for attention-grabbing has been raised significantly. What to do? Get over using simple graphics and move on to emotion-grabbing “visual storytelling.” Sophisticated cinematography. Speed, clarity, accuracy. These are all boxes that must increasingly be checked if we are to grab our increasingly sophisticated customers’ attention. As this piece points out, the elegance with which a spot is shot is now as important as the strategy underlying the message. 

Bottom Line. BUT. This is not just art for art’s sake. Powerful renditions, it is argued here, draw people into the story, raise emotions, let the viewer experience what the people in the story they are watching are experiencing. 

Gone are the days of “Pop Pop Fizz Fizz, oh what a relief it is” being all you needed to sell Alka Seltzer. 

Long gone! 

Did You Forget Something???

Check this out. What you will see is a “pull through” strategy being employed by Biogen to increase the sales of its Alzheimer’s drug, Aduhelm. Take an unvalidated quiz to see if your concerns about having Alzheimer’s are, well, valid. Whatever your score, the online quiz is programmed to tell you to speak with your physician about cognitive screening. OR. You can enter your zip code and be turfed to a specialist who can do fun things like a spinal tap to determine if you have a buildup of amyloid plaque. 

Bottom Line. Pull throughs like this are not new to the pharmaceutical industry. Raising physician consciousness of an underdiagnosed disease is probably a good thing in most cases. Ditto raising patient consciousness through DTC. BUT. How about here?

My two cents worth is that using an unvalidated quiz to get patients to believe that even the most casual forgetting is Alzheimer’s is iffy. Throw in the optics of trying to get new patients to take a drug that maybe works and maybe doesn’t, but in any event costs the health care system over $50,000 per year per patient, and Biogen has certainly given muck raking journalists something to feast on! 

Fewer Physician Visits By PSRs Post-Pandemic?

As you will see in these survey results from FirstWord, that is the desired scenario for about half of the 100 doctors they polled. Throughout the six months of reporting on the results of my On Doctors’ MindsSM conversations, that about lines up with what I have been finding. As we predicted back in November of 2020, many doctors are looking forward hopefully for a return of the “old normal.” BUT. About half of all physicians we have talked to, and especially many specialists, have learned over the course of the pandemic to “do without” PSRs, readily getting  the answers and information they need in their practices from other sources. 

While you are looking at these results, check out the data concerning virtual details. Here, 57% of doctors reported that they find them to be equally or more “effective” than personal PSR visits. BUT. In my conversations with physicians, the majority of doctors are avoiding these virtual visits like the plague (Sorry!) due to difficulties in scheduling and the extra time required. Translated, perhaps the virtual details that are happening are “effective,” but most of my discussants, and I believe most physicians more generally, are not letting them happen.

Bottom Line. Throughout our study of the effects of the pandemic on office-based physicians, we have been telling our pharmaceutical clients that they had best be prepared to increase their physician micromarketing sophistication as the pandemic winds down. Doctors are differing widely in their preferred mode of communicating with pharmaceutical companies. One size definitely doesn’t fit all here, and we need to be ready to respond to these differing physician preferences. 

30 Madison and A Strange Kind of Telehealth!!!

Check this out. What you will find is a very strange form of Telehealth. BUT. While strange, this company’s offering is interesting and important enough to garner investments form the likes of JNJ.

Several novel things going on here. First of all, 30 Madison has three separate subcompanies, one for each of the three conditions its offerings treat. Hair loss, migraine and gastric reflux. Second, for those medications requiring an Rx, the consumer can get channeled directly to a consultation with an appropriate physician. Third, while appearing to be “telehealth,” the real business model here is mail order pharmacy.  

Bottom Line. I’ve said it before and I will say it again. We have only scratched the surface in terms of truly novel ways in which “telehealth” can be employed. 30 Madison certainly brings a novel approach to the marketplace. The notion of a patient self-diagnosing and tapping directly into a portal specifically designed to service that diagnosis is a model we haven’t seen before.  

It will be interesting to see how this develops!  

The Cost Of “The Hard Switch”

Check this out. For those lucky folks like me, who have decades of experience in pharmaceutical marketing, this piece might hit you a little in the gut. What you will see here is that Allergan is ponying up $750 Million because it planned to pull the “hard switch.” Translated, that means that they planned to take Namenda off the market months before the cheaper generics would become available, thus forcing prescribers and patients to move on to the more expensive/patent protected XR version where they would likely remain when the generics became available. A class action suit was filed against them when the plan went public, which they appear to be settling at the 11th hour without admitting wrong doing.

Okay. Think about this for a minute. What is really going on here? A company and its product team were trying to blunt what we used to call “generic erosion.” At first blush, it looked like they had come up with a fairly clever way to do it. Welcome to 2019. You get sued based on anti-trust law when you try this stunt. AND. Since the plan never got off the ground, sales of the Namenda branded product have not surprisingly done the usual nose dive following “patent expiry.” They are now at a whopping 10% of their former sales levels.  

But there are bigger issues here. A decade ago, it was expected that brand managers would develop plans to slow and minimize generic erosion. Failure to do so could cost a product manager her job. There were lots of different ways to do it. For example, some companies struck special deals with wholesalers to “stock up” on the brand in advance of generic availability. Others offered special patient programs so that they could argue that their product went “beyond the pill.”

One of my clients, who will remain nameless, conveniently kept introducing a “new and improved” product to replace the one going off patent. I watched that strategy work for a decade. No more. The company has now disappeared from our industry.  

Other companies ran programs that “educated” doctors about the “inferior” approval process that got generics their ANDA’s. Much talk of birth defects resulting from Italian (generic) tetracyclines, etc.  

But here is the real question. In 2019, is it even legal for a company to strategize internally about preventing generic erosion of their product. What happens if a disgruntled whistleblower broadcasts an email on the topic? And what are the negative PR repercussions if word gets out about such hanky-panky?

Bottom Line. And here, folks, is the real question. Is it moral, when viewed through the eyes of the current zeitgeist, to try to prevent lower cost drugs from getting into the hands of patients?  

As someone who spent years quietly watching as my clients worked hard to keep lower cost generics out of the hands of patients, I am left to ponder my answer to this very important question!

What’s your answer?

What Does A Pharmaceutical Marketer Do With “Empathy?”

For that matter, what the heck is “empathy” anyhow?  One of our clients got me thinking about this question when their advertising agency told them they would need to develop physician empathy for patients suffering from a condition that one of their products treats. You see, their marketing research had demonstrated that physicians didn’t think the condition was “so bad,” and felt that patients weren’t really “suffering” enough to require treatment. Is “developing empathy” a marketing strategy? A marketing tactic?”

Anytime I start to think about a new area of endeavor, one of the first things that I do is go to the Amazon book section and see what’s available. If a title or two looks interesting, I download them to my Kindle and dig in. My more frequent readers already know about this modus operandi.  

So once again, off I went to explore empathy.  Here is what I found. Quite a collection of very different books, eh? Guess what. I didn’t download any of them. None looked like it was spot on to answer my l questions about applicability to healthcare marketing. (Confession. I picked the one pictured above for a graphic because I liked its clean look!)

My second line of defense in exploring a new topic is Wikipedia. There, I actually found some useful information about empathy. For example, I found out that some psychologists divide empathy into:

  • Cognitive Empathy. Logically understanding how someone else feels.
  • Emotional Empathy. Actually feeling what someone else feels, vicariously.
  • Compassionate Empathy. Feeling compelled to help someone if help is required.  


Bottom Line. Although I am just starting to focus on empathy’s role in pharmaceutical marketing, I think I get it. For pharmaceutical marketers, developing physician empathy for patients does not involve getting them all sobby from empathizing with their patients’ travails. It does involve making sure that they understand the nature of their patients’ sufferings and how bothersome they are to the patients, and most importantly making  them want to help the patients in a “treatment area” that they otherwise might have ignored. 

Sharing statistics on symptoms and their severity, sharing testimonials about negative impact on quality of life, etc. are indeed tactics that could help to enhance physician empathy and raise prescribing to a more appropriate level.

Think about it!  

No Laughing Matter!!!

Check this out. What you will see is a summary of the transcript of a physician/patient dialogue during the course of one oncology office visit. In it, you will see the doctor and the patient banter back and forth about the goofy costs of medications, and how the “retail price” of drugs is virtually irrelevant to the amount that will be reimbursed by the insurance company. Read this quickly. In terms of real information, there’s not a heck of a lot that is new here. BUT. What I found distressing was the tone of the dialogue. Doctor and patient laughing together about the stupid costs of health care. Bottom Line. As the author of this piece rightfully observes, the unfortunate reality of this exchange is that the doctor, the representative of the healthcare community in the eyes of the patient, is making every part of that community the butt of his jokes.  However justified it is to make healthcare pricing a laughingstock, there is a very unfortunate result.   Trust, in pharmaceutical companies, insurance companies, the whole healthcare system, gets destroyed a little bit every time conversations like this one occur. In addition to the medications, I think that this is one more thing we can’t afford!