The future of biopharma marketing

Jan. 19, 2023 | Article | 9-minute read

The future of biopharma marketing

“Have we changed at all?” a pharma chief marketing officer asked rhetorically during a recent roundtable. “The customer has definitely changed, but I think we’re all fighting for the past lately.”


The biopharmaceutical industry has undergone rapid shifts over the past few years, with marketers acknowledging that existing customer trends have accelerated and that the traditional commercial model has been upended. While ZS research shows pharma reps’ in-person office visits have returned to roughly 80% of their pre-pandemic levels, the importance of nontraditional channels is likely to continue to grow as we shift away from a mindset where the rep is at the center.

The role of the post-pandemic sales rep has been well studied, but there has been less attention paid to the future of the biopharmaceutical marketer, who must also adapt to succeed in a changing environment. Meanwhile, as consumer and healthcare provider behaviors, needs, engagement channels and content preferences evolve, marketing executives struggle to understand how their function must be transformed in terms of talent, capabilities and execution.


To understand what this transformation will entail, we interviewed more than 50 marketing executives from across the biopharmaceutical industry and conducted two roundtables for biopharma marketers. From these, we identified five key growth vectors for biopharma marketers.

1. Elevate customer experiences

Biopharma will reform one step closer to hospitality, where consumers and providers have high expectations for what pharma should know about their preferences and needs as they evolve.


Where we are today: Customer experience has been a source of confusion for biopharma organizations. Many marketers have asked who the customer is (patient, payer, provider or system), who is responsible for the relationship and how much control a manufacturer really has over customer behavior. Since the pandemic’s onset, customer preferences and needs have evolved rapidly, with convenience and personalization coming to the fore. It’s been reported 71% of consumers say they feel frustrated with impersonal brand experiences and 72% say they only engage with personalized messaging.


Where we’re headed: In response, biopharma must prepare to meet customers where they are across channels and communication points. Customer shifts will continue rapidly, with patients and providers expecting biopharma to know about their preferences and needs in real time. Biopharma companies will need to first reevaluate how they listen to all their customers—healthcare consumers, providers, organized customers and payers—in more sophisticated ways than through field rides, rep feedback forms and traditional tracking surveys. In short, biopharma must borrow from the playbooks of customer-obsessed industries, such as retail, banking and hospitality.

2. Strategize dynamically

To force changes to the annual budgeting and insights processes, brand strategy and tactical planning must transform to become dynamic and agile.

Where we are today: Before the pandemic, brand planning was a formal, annual and often tedious process, with teams spending at least six months developing a plan for the following year. The result, according to one hemophilia marketer, was a plan that included everyone’s point of view but was needlessly complicated. 

Where we’re headed: Many marketers agreed brand strategy and tactical planning will need to become dynamic and agile, which will force changes to the annual budgeting and insights-gathering processes. To bridge the gap, a few best practices emerged from leading organizations:

  • Identify the triggers. Align the organization on what events—including reimbursement changes, competitor launches or new data, indication expansion or safety signals—cause a reevaluation of the brand plan.
  • Create an innovation reserve during budgeting. This ensures funding will be available to support innovative ideas as they arise. Some teams host quarterly “Shark Tank”-style events to build momentum.
  • Plan down to the segment level. Refine brand plans, objectives and even tactics at the segment level to ensure prioritized segments have appropriate content and execution.
  • Shake up the insights-gathering process. Move beyond rigid awareness trial and usage studies to open panels, flexible research and patient and provider opinion leaders for decision-making.

3. Enable precision content

Campaign design will overhaul and use a precision-forward approach, shifting the traditional agency model and regulatory process. They will favor shorter development times, meaning the agency of record model will have to be turned on its head.


Where we are today: Traditional marketing collateral is developed using a static, one-size-fits-all approach, optimized for print and focused on sales reps or patients. Some manual personalization by customer segment is de rigueur, with creative agencies driving much of the content creation as well as some of the channel selection.


Where we’re headed: The marketers we interviewed were divided on how to overhaul traditional campaigns to become more targeted. The traditional agency model and regulatory process has shifted, favoring shorter development windows and dynamic content. But executives, especially more agency-oriented marketers, disagree about how much this shift will affect the finished product. We see leading organizations taking these steps to bridge the gap between to-the-masses marketing and personalized marketing:

  • Moving from content-as-promotion to content-as-a-value-added service. Evolving away from traditional efficacy-focused messaging represents a major mindset shift.
  • Transforming the agency model and how legal and marketing work together. Conditions change too quickly for static, one-size-fits-all campaigns that unfold over years and can’t be adjusted midflight. Dynamic, modular campaigns are one solution, but they require marketing and legal to rethink how they work together. 
  • Streamlining campaign design timelines. Nonpharma companies create customized campaigns in minutes using algorithms. Nine- to 18-month runways won’t fly.
  • Insourcing campaign analytics. Some companies are experimenting with this and last-mile creative development for speed. They also want to do more A/B testing.

4. Digitally execute and excel

Half of marketing execution should be able to be automated. Channels will one day be customized in real time to individual customer needs, minimizing the importance of traditional singular channels like the field force.


Where we are today: The rep traditionally has been the primary provider touch point for new product information, delivering printed materials during a face-to-face interaction. Most biopharma companies are moving away from field reps and TV ads as their primary provider for patient touch points and toward digital and other nontraditional channels. But campaigns are still executed in a multichannel manner, with more “surround sound” for the typical tentpole channels than true omnichannel.


Where we’re headed: Marketers disagreed on what needs to change. Some misinterpret digital as a mere shift toward additional media, while others grasp the need to leverage diverse nontraditional channels depending on situational need. Most agreed, however, that campaigns require a higher degree of precision and personalization, potentially leading to the automation of some job elements. The most advanced organizations are:

  • Fine-tuning segmentation. While no one anticipates segments of N=1, companies increasingly realize the three to five is ungainly. One consumer packaged goods executive hypothesized the optimal number for planning is probably dozens, but algorithms can get much more precise.
  • Continuing the shift toward nontraditional channels. Taking an experience-first marketing approach requires delivering content to channels such as emerging digital, advocacy or medical that may be outside an agency’s comfort zone. This approach offers the marketer an opportunity to play a more central role than they have historically.
  • Investing in “next best service” capabilities. Most marketers say they are underinvesting in patient capabilities to help predict when patients will need assistance from a support program.

5. Reconsider the DNA of modern marketers

Prior sales rep experience will be obsolete and as structures shift to customer-centric franchise models, medical will become the star and cross-functional mindsets will drive success.


Where we are today: When asked who their primary customer has been, many marketers surprised us by saying the sales rep. Given the typical size and effectiveness of business-to-business sales teams in biopharma, the marketing team structure, processes and even talent all revolved around this construct. In an industry that has historically devoted significant resources to marketing, a focus on production has benefited many former sales reps who are great “doers.”


Where we’re headed: With many companies shifting to a more customer-centric focus, the marketing team structure and talent distribution must evolve in three ways:

  • Building a collaboration-first mindset. Marketing’s focus on connected customer experiences will touch additional functions, such as value and access, IT and medical. This mindset shift will require every function to work in lockstep from strategy and design to execution. Marketers also must become more deeply involved in pipeline development to drive insights about emerging needs.
  • Finding talent in novel places. Given the increasing complexity of the reimbursement environment, some organizations are beginning to source marketing talent from value and access teams as well as from digital and nonpharma backgrounds.
  • Empowering portfolio- and franchise-level teams. It will be critical to ensure customers receive a connected experience, making it more important for marketing operations to build the necessary marketing team capabilities.

4 steps for building a next-generation biopharma marketing organization

Biopharma marketing is certainly evolving, but not at the speed we expected at the height of the pandemic, when sales rep visits plummeted and companies expected digital marketing to displace traditional marketing immediately. Still, the growing emphasis on elevating the customer experience is forcing marketers to adapt. There are four actions marketing executives should take to begin creating a next-generation marketing organization:

  1. Shift the marketer mindset. To move from product-centricity to customer-centricity, changing messaging is not enough. Teams must be structured differently and adopt new ways of working.
  2. Reimagine what good marketing looks like. Without meaningful examples of elevated strategic planning, precision content and next-level execution, old habits won’t die. Marketing executives must define, model and incentivize best practices.
  3. Hire marketers of the future today. You can’t wait until everything’s in place to begin hiring the talent you need. Start now to source talent from nontraditional sources with the skill sets you prize.
  4. Ensure the right support model to enable new age marketers. Assess and invest in marketing training—in particular, training that will help elevate the customer experience, boost design capabilities and build a stronger bridge to omnichannel execution teams.

Has biopharma marketing evolved to meet and match customer and market changes? Yes, but more work remains to be done.

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