Pharmaceuticals & Biotech

Brand positioning in pharma: Where’s the patient?

Sept. 30, 2019 | Article | 3-minute read

Brand positioning in pharma: Where’s the patient?

Patient centricity is a familiar buzzword in the pharmaceutical industry today. High medication costs and consumerism are leading patients to play a more influential role in their own treatment decisions. So when it comes to brand positioning, why do most pharma companies still largely target the prescribers?


Traditionally speaking, the HCP makes the prescribing decision on behalf of the patient—the end user. The emphasis on the HCP as the decision maker led companies to focus on the benefits to the HCP—and the pharma industry has been slow to move away from this approach.


Eli Lilly, however, started down the path to patient centricity before the term became such a buzzword: In 2003, the company leveraged the power of patient insights to surpass Viagra in sales, despite its product, Cialis, being third to market. A key difference between the two is that Cialis has a slower onset to action and a longer duration. While physicians thought that this was a disadvantage, patients felt otherwise. They associated Cialis with intimacy and romance, not just sex. Cialis’s marketing team realized that this was a primary point of positioning differentiation and began to build their marketing campaigns around it. Without these patient insights, it seems unlikely that Cialis would have been nearly as successful.


Despite success stories like these, why is the pharma industry as a whole slow to adopt patient centricity? To overcome the obstacles and develop a more patient-centric approach to brand positioning, pharma companies need to take a few key steps:


1. Develop one overall brand positioning with the patient at the center. Many brand teams have separate HCP and patient teams that each focus on their respective target customers. The HCP team may default to leading brand positioning development, or each team may come up with their own positioning specific to each customer type, which leads to inefficiency. Rather than developing separate positioning statements, develop one statement that’s focused on meaningful benefits for the patient, which all stakeholders will care about.


2. Explore new territories with patients. Typically, pharma has been focused on clinical benefits (efficacy, safety, dosing, etc.) in brand positioning. Few take the time to really understand the core benefits to the patient and the impact on their lives. To ensure that you’re incorporating the voice of the patient, conduct research with patients before and during your brand positioning development process to understand the impact of their disease and your product in their own words (vs. the physician’s interpretation of the impact). This will provide much richer details on which to build an effective brand positioning. Companies could even consider innovative research approaches such as mobile ethnographies or co-creation sessions to develop a deep understanding of patient needs.


3. Link the positioning to customer-specific benefits and messaging. While the focus of the brand positioning should be on the patient, you need to add the resulting benefit for other stakeholders. You would do this by developing a customer-specific value proposition and messaging linked to the core differentiated benefit in the positioning. For example, if your drug is the easiest for patients to use, you can focus your messaging on how it can reduce HCPs’ concerns about compliance or proper technique. In fact, in cases where the product attributes and functional benefits of two products are similar, these physician- or practice-oriented benefits, along with elements like the reputation of the pharmaceutical company, can make a significant difference in your brand’s favor. 


The patient is the one experiencing the symptoms, the symptom relief, the side effects, and better or worsening prognosis. Therefore, the impact on the patient’s life should be the focus of your brand positioning—winning customers’ hearts and minds, and ultimately improving patient outcomes.

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