Big Pharma should be more like Richard Branson.

By July 20, 2008Uncategorized

We tend to think of RM in terms of adherence, compliance and profitability for our clients. We are, after all, a marketing firm, and like anyone else, we tend to see every problem as a nail if we happen to be holding a hammer.

However, there’s a much broader way to understand relationships with customers, one that has enormous strategic value for the entire organization. This point was made in a post in DTC Perspectives on Friday, and we think it deserves some thoughtful comment. And, as we’ll see in a minute, a comparison to Richard Branson.

On the 17th, the Wall Street Journal’s Health blog reported the following: On July 15, two leading lawyers from PhRMA, the drug industry’s trade
group in D.C., met with key staffers for the House Energy and Commerce
Committee’s investigations panel, which has been probing
direct-to-consumer advertising practices with a vengeance since January.

DTC advertising, which was never very popular among a certain segment of consumers, has now become the full-fledged whipping boy for Congress. A lot of bloggers and thinkers have already delved into how and why this is happening and what it means. A different question, however, ought to be asked — why didn’t the drug companies see this coming?

Congress is not known for acting quickly, or delivering surprises. There has been plenty of telegraphing of this particular punch. Yet, here we have the sight of Big Pharma CEOs being barbecued in public by Congressional committees.

But, as the DTC piece points out, drug companies in general are inadequately focused on other aspects of their operations. In exploring responses to this situation, one suggestion is that ... drug CEO’s need to get more involved in ensuring their
organizations are more consumer-centric. I have said this many times,
but drug companies are still largely detail sales, clinical research,
regulatory and legal organizations. Neither their senior management
teams nor their boards are usually consumer-centric in background and
action. Are there any senior managers reporting directly to the CEO who
represent consumers?

This is a role RM can fill easily, and to some extent already does. But it needs to be expanded, and it needs to be moved up the corporate food chain.

In virtually every other consumer business, top management is obsessed by the need to understand, in depth, what their customers think of their products and services. As consumers, we are constantly bombarded by surveys, focus groups, 800 numbers and a host of other channels for helping companies understand what’s going on.Sir Richard Branson himself frequently acts as a steward on Virgin Air flights, taking notes on customer reaction to the service.

The defining feature of RM is that it enables patients and consumers to talk as well as listen. Any pharma company engaged in RM already has a great deal of information about what consumers think, don’t think, like and don’t like. With some minor adjustments and enhancements, this information could, and should, go straight to the CEOs office.

If it did, it would be considerably less likely that you’d see the top executives of pharmaceutical companies looking like deer in the Congressional headlights. They would have seen and understood the scope and depth of the backlash against pharma DTC ads, and could have taken steps to respond to it before Congress did.

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