How can pharmaceuticals use increased patient engagement to their advantage?

By Steven Dry


Customers are no longer content to buy a drug simply because of a doctor’s recommendation.

In a study of 13,000 patients, 89% initiated a conversation with their physician about alternative treatment options, and 70% think decisions made about their treatment should be a collaborative effort with their doctor.

What’s more, we increasingly see patients expecting drug companies to help them achieve their wellness goals – not just provide a product. This shift creates new opportunities, and of course challenges, for pharmaceutical companies. They need to quickly adjust their marketing tactics in the short term and focus on redesigning their companies to deliver complimentary digital-drug solutions in the long term. It’s this combined approach that will allow companies to support their customers in achieving their goals in the future.

These patient engagement trends are indicative of wider developments we’re seeing across sectors. ‘Customer 4.0’, as we call it, is a fundamental shift in power from the company to the consumer. Companies are expected to fulfil the goals of the consumer, not simply provide a product or service for consumption. At the same time, consumers are empowered to make more informed decisions in an emerging ‘Me2Me’ economy that shares a wealth of information and recommendations between consumers.

Taking a step back, we can see the evolution of customer behaviour and marketing strategies in the pharmaceutical industry.

  • Customer 1.0: product led: This is the product world epitomised by Henry Ford’s ‘any colour as long as it’s black’ attitude. Power in the market sits with those that control production and distribution. Pharmaceuticals produced the drug and customers bought the drug. For example, a Pfizer advertisement produced during World War II emphasises the name ‘PENICILLIN’ in large letters, without pronounced drug or company branding. Like Ford, Pfizer’s ability to mass produce and distribute penicillin gave them the competitive advantage without the need for branding.
  • Customer 2.0: brand led: This is when branding and advertising started to create differentiation between products and tell customers what’s ‘true’. We see this in the branding of ibuprofen by Pfizer (Advil) and Johnson & Johnson (Motrin). In the late 1980s, Motrin leveraged its successes with prescription strength pain relief to brand Motrin, using the tag line, ‘ Doctor-recommended pain relief. Perhaps in an attempt to supersede Motrin, Advil described itself as ‘Advanced medicine for pain’, often referencing Motrin in its advertising. Both campaigns tried to set the landscape for the consumer and define what’s ‘true.’
  • Customer 3.0: experience led: This is the world most organisations live in today, where products are augmented by an experience intended to draw consumers into the providers’ world in the most compelling way possible. Seeking to retain customers, pharmaceuticals improved the marketing experience by creating apps to help educate consumers about their products and create tools tailored to their drug. Sanofi has been particularly successful with this strategy, producing accompanying resource apps, such as ‘ My Link’ for Lemtrada patients, and gamified education apps like Lipid Fighter and FluMania. By improving the user experience of marketing, companies could reach wider audiences in more accessible means.

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To reach the 89% of patients engaged in their medical treatment, pharmaceuticals can, in the short term, focus on ‘outcomes worth sharing’. And in the long term, redesign their companies to build ‘solution suites.’ Let’s take a look at both of these in a little more detail.

  • Switch up your marketing strategy: Increasingly, consumers turn to friends, trusted advisors and even celebrity crushes to get more authentic reviews of products and services. Focusing on achieving the wellness goals of their customers will lead people to more outwardly advocating their products. For pharmaceuticals, this means adapting social media strategies to leverage these relationships.
  • Consider Instagram endorsements: In 2015,  Kim Kardashian’s endorsement of Diclesig (and her recent  re-endorsement) shows how important this informal marketing channel is in raising awareness of drugs. Her first post garnered 490,000 likes before being taken down, while her second landed 790,000. The endorsements led to a rise in visits to the drug maker’s website, but this didn't convert into more time spent on the website. Many criticised the drug maker and Kim Kardashian for this #ad – most notably the US Food and Drug Administration – but finding appropriate ways to leverage ‘Me2Me’ marketing will be a valuable way to market in the future.
  • Create experiences worth sharing: Think TED talks, but geared towards solving consumers’ problems so well they want to share. If a product exceeds the customer’s expectations and meets their needs, they’ll be more inclined to share those experiences with others. Casper Mattresses has capitalised on experiences – transforming and streamlining the arduous task of buying a mattress. Customers have their choice of onemattress online and it’s delivered to your door in a remarkably small box. When freed from the plastic wrap, the mattress expands to its full size. The experience was so cool, customers made it a ‘thing’ to  record their #unboxing and post it on YouTube or Instagram.
  • Redesign your businesses to produce ‘suite solutions’ Consumers expect companies to help them achieve their goals, requiring pharmaceuticals to redesign their business structure to meet customer needs. Most pharmaceuticals have legacy structures based on a business model that produces novel drugs, and is focused on jumping through the hoops of a rigorous drug development process. They’re fundamentally structured for a Customer 1.0 market. And they’ve subsequently added marketing and branding to accommodate Customer 2.0 and Customer 3.0 mentalities. But Customer 4.0 requires a fundamental redesign. 

As consumers demand better wellness outcomes, and digital solutions and devices become more integrated into patient health and wellness, pharmaceuticals may want to consider how they organise and plan.

  • Broaden the term ‘pipeline.’ Visit any major pharmaceutical company and you’ll find an easily accessible list of compounds in their pipeline. What’s often harder to find are any indications of alternative solutions to promote patient wellness. In a Customer 4.0 world that focuses on wellness outcomes, the pharmaceutical ‘pipelines’ should expand to include investments in digital and device solutions that complement and improve health in their therapeutic focus areas.
  • Imagine ‘suite solutions.’ Digital solutions and devices are no longer a novelty. Creating a suite of offerings to deliver wellness results to customers will drive pharmaceuticals’ success in a Customer 4.0 world. Johnson & Johnson has done a good job of this for airborne allergies, with the rollout of  AllergyCast – an app to help people plan their day based on the pollen count. The drug accompanies Zyrtec, their allergy medicine. The suite could be improved by adding devices that not only provide information, but actually facilitate more healthy lives, like an  activity mask to be worn by allergy sufferers during exercise. These suite solutions help to achieve the patients’ health goals and will make pharmaceuticals the go-to resources for healthy living.   

For pharmaceuticals, Customer 4.0 requires a shift in how they understand and manage their business. Entering into the customer’s universe isn’t just a stealth way to do marketing. It’s about rethinking the business strategy towards improving health rather than selling drugs. And in doing this, the possibilities become endless.

About the authors

Steven Dry PA agile expert Part creative, part quantitative: Steve moves projects from ideation to implementation

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