04 September 2019

How the pharma market game could change

Digital transformation has brought increasingly more challenges to different parts of the pharma business, especially marketing. While marketing in the pharma industry at one time was focused on individual prescribers, the list of parties demanding attention is constantly growing, including insurance companies, hospital staff, regulators, patients--and more and more of that attention is being demanded online.

Digital marketing and advertising challenges in the pharma industry

Marketing for pharmaceutical companies has always been a challenge, especially for the industry on the whole, with books like “Bad Pharma: How Medicine Is Broken, and How We Can Fix It” being commonplace. There is mistrust from the public, but there is also a lot of control within the industry itself, and those regulations are subject to frequent change.

Criticism about the immaturity in marketing and advertising in pharma is not uncommon, with critics citing the conservative nature of the industry as one of the main hindrances. A whitepaper from MextrixLab on closing the gap in digital advertising for the pharmaceutical industry summarizes the opinion that pharma “remains resolutely behind the curve and is yet to substantially switch to digital.” The same research showed that where companies reported seeing the greatest penetration was with television advertising, which itself is changing in the way viewers consume visual entertainment and therefore needs adaptation.

It also points out that at least 50% of internet users look up medical and health information online, and other research indicates that this figure is closer to 80%. These users don’t always find the information they are looking for, or reliable sources. Due to regulations and a distrust of research sponsored by corporations, this potential opportunity also poses many challenges.

Pharma market’s future according to the giant

Perhaps the greatest obstacle for looking forward is that it is difficult to simply know where to look. You can’t foresee the future of digital marketing in the pharmaceutical industry if you don’t know what the market will look like. There are some big players making moves to change the healthcare market landscape--or rather, turn it upside down.

It wouldn’t be 2019 if we didn’t take some time to wonder what Amazon is up to. In the case of pharma, they seem to have a lot of irons in the fire. The most obvious was their acquisition of PillPack, a full service online pharmacy that aims to simplify the entire prescription process. With authorized prescriptions from your doctor and insurance information, they sort your pills by dose in a pack, indicating the day, time and contents of each pack. They have online customer support, automatic refills, and free delivery. Amazon announced the acquisition in June of 2018, lead by Amazon innovator Nader Kabbani.

Another acquisition that could prove significant to Amazon’s pharma plan? Whole Foods. While some countries have stricter regulations, in the United States it is common to purchase over-the-counter medicines, supplements and medical and health products in supermarkets. This allows for a wide net of remerchandising--not to mention huge amounts of data on consumer habits. And not to be forgotten, more touch points with the direct consumer.

Beyond this, Amazon has many other portals through which they can reach the consumer, the most subtle and possibly the most lucrative being Alexa, Amazon’s digital assistant built into its smart speakers and displays. In late 2018 the company was issued a patent for “voice-based determination of physical and emotional characteristics of users”. What does this mean, and what does it mean for digital marketing of medical and health products? Without unpacking the potential creepiness of this technology, let’s focus on the rich digital marketing possibilities for the pharma industry. Essentially, if the device can determine through irregularities in your speech like crying, coughing, or a scratchy voice, it will learn to relate those to particular health issues--ones that can be cured or comforted with the right product. Combining this information with recent online activity can be extremely valuable data for pharma’s digital marketers.

According to Martech Advisor, by 2030 each individual will own an average of 15 connected devices, ranging from TVs, smartphones and wearables to robots, appliances and products yet to be developed. It’s up to clever and compliant marketers to turn this wealth of data into impactful, efficient, and memorable marketing actions.

From your doctor’s office to your living room

Although Amazon hasn’t made any specific business initiative announcements, these movements are sure signs about where they see pharmaceutical marketing in the future. None of these locations is a doctor’s office. All of these points of sale are direct to the consumer. These actions point toward personalization, leveraging vast amounts of data to optimize the digital marketing of their pharma efforts. In the case of voice assistance learning to read people’s health status and emotions, we can assume that IoT developments will offer more data than ever to digital marketers.

Jeff Wilke of Amazon explains, “PillPack’s visionary team has a combination of deep pharmacy experience and a focus on technology. PillPack is meaningfully improving its customers’ lives, and we want to help them continue making it easy for people to save time, simplify their lives, and feel healthier. We’re excited to see what we can do together on behalf of customers over time.” It will require skill and concentrated effort to help the conservative pharma industry catch up in digital advertising, but there is opportunity in accepting trends early. It’s up to companies to be the first to move in the right direction and lead the way.

Thinking about how to prepare your strategy for market changes?