Learning How to Market Pharma From . . . Airlines?

It's not as strange as it sounds. If you dig a little deeper, there are a lot of similarities between the airline industry and pharma, and a lot of valuable marketing lessons to be learned, particularly about putting the customer at the center. Let's take a look:


  • Both industries are highly regulated.
  • Customers in both industries purchase based on factors besides service, or the attributes of the brand. Airline customers tend to purchase based on price, or timetables — period.
  • Neither is much of a discretionary purchase
  • And, given what's happened in the airline industry in the last several years, in both industries customer service is almost nonexistent.
  • Customer retention (in pharma, it's called "adherence")

While as a whole, the airline industry is, and has been, a smoking financial crater for some time, there are some exceptions — airlines such as Southwest, and Virgin. And in a fascinating, Podcasted interview posted recently in the Emergence Marketing blog, Virgin America's CMO, Porter Gale, offers some insights into Virgin's unorthodox — and very successful — marketing methololgy. And you know what the foundation of it all is — focusing on the customer, particularly their experience.

Airlines are not known, of course, for providing especially positive customer experiences. Quite the opposite, in fact. From the inception, however, Virgin America has been out to change that. And the absolute essence of their approach is to humanize the customer experience. This means minimizing the tendency of airlines to simply repeat the company line, regardless of the customer or the situation right in front of them.

Virgin combats this by encouraging employees to "tell their own story" — to talk to customers frankly and openly about their experiences, and to do whatever needs doing to improve that experience.

The comparisons are instructive, and the interview, albeit an hour long, is terrific. For too long, pharma has focused on the clinical benefits of its products — if a drug help you to get better, that's all that matters. Similarly, for too long, airlines have focused on the idea that if they get you and your baggage where you're going in one piece and relatively on time, they've done their jobs. In fact, the experience is vastly more complex, and pervasive than that, and has a lot to do with whether the customer will return, and what they'll communicate to others. Gale (and Virgin) understand this, and it's something pharma companies could learn about as well.