Pharmaceuticals & Biotech

The pandemic launched the shift to digital into hyperdrive. Can pharma keep up?

By Arun Shastri, and Carrie Reininger

Jan. 24, 2021 | Article | 6-minute read

The pandemic launched the shift to digital into hyperdrive. Can pharma keep up?

Although pharmaceutical organizations have been learning to think “digital” for some time now, the pandemic has accelerated the shift and forced companies from thought into action. From working remotely to engaging with customers virtually, to redesigning services to adapt to new customers’ needs, to modifying decision-making processes in order to stay relevant, pharma must continue to adapt to our new reality and accept that, even with a vaccine, customer behaviors have changed permanently.


As buyers’ behaviors change, pharma companies must change as well, which is where a digital-focused framework comes into play. Pharma organizations need to evolve across the board, but specifically their mindset, decision-making, planning and execution. It means adapting an “always ready, never done” approach; it means decisions which before were intermittent or periodic now demand more continuity; it means as the desire for specialization increases, there needs to also be an increased focus on execution and coordination in order to act on frequent insights and opportunities. Simply put, it means that independent, siloed planning across roles, products, channels and processes won’t hack it anymore. 

A “tail” of two digital mindsets

For examples on the how’s and why’s of prioritizing digital, pharma can turn to the pet supplies industry. Like other retail sectors, pet stores have dealt with major disruption over the past several months. Due to changes in consumer behavior, the ability (and often pure necessity) to shop through multiple channels has driven new norms for ensuring customer loyalty. And, while brick-and-mortar pet store chains like Petco and PetSmart flounder, despite their attempts to beef up their digital presence, business has soared for Bark (a pet toy subscription service) and Chewy (an online pet food and product retailer). While this is partially due to people preferring to shop at home, it’s also likely that Bark’s and Chewy’s truly digital-focused models put them ahead of the curve, not just because their services are more convenient, but because they’re more agile and adaptive to change, and provide more targeted, personalized experiences. In fact, after noting the market both for ease-of-shopping for large bags of pet food, as well as buyers’ desire for a more personalized approach to feeding their pets, Bark is in the process of expanding into pet food retail with their venture Bark Eats.


Both companies were able to completely pivot their brand strategy, delivery models and content, which they based on their customers’ needs. More importantly, they did it quickly, so their customers’ needs and desires didn’t outpace them. Bark and Chewy likely succeeded where more established pet supply companies failed because they were agile in their responses.


The common theme across industries is that buyers are increasingly channel agnostic, requiring sales organizations to master the art of deploying omnichannel strategies. Buyers require timely information which demands that sellers are agile and adapt quickly to changing customer journeys. In addition, they want information that’s tailored to them. For that, organizations must get better at quick insights about their customers’ needs, and at orchestrating channels and content to meet those needs.

Driving an organization-wide, digital-focused mindset

The concept of orchestrating content, channel and timing isn’t foreign to pharma, with up to 35% of the industry orchestrating some channels. However, the orchestration isn’t limited to channels and content. Rather, it’s meant to orchestrate toward business outcomes—simplification, speed and agility as well as positive customer experience. While a machine can synthesize data at rapid speed, providing diverse information in real-time based on increasingly granular understandings of a customer, full organizational buy-in and comprehension is necessary to ensure this is put to good use. Pharma needs to drive a digital-focused mindset across its teams, including all people-facing roles, and prioritize simplifying and automating long-standing manual processes.


For this to happen, pharma needs to work on breaking down silos. Patient services still function as a separate process from the broader experience across channels. Sales representatives don’t fully understand their role in developing insights that help orchestration across all channels. And marketing teams still think separately about digital media from headquarters without a broader view of the customer experience. Many organizations are taking the approach to form agile teams who explore the implications of unique customers and strategies to reach them, as well as how to operationalize said strategies. They’re finding that the current way of doing things is messy, making responsiveness and connectivity across channels near to impossible. Additionally, content generation and data collection are unnecessarily complex and disjointed, leading to longer timelines. Although digital has been transformational, it grew out of and built upon old processes. As we enter phase two, it’s time for the mindset to catch up to the technology. The entire organization needs to reassess what digital really means in every process, and streamline them to better meet their customers’ needs. Fortunately, many of the digital tools and technologies needed to create a connected, end-to-end approach are already in place—they just aren’t being used to their full potential and are seemingly far removed from strategy.


Content, often at the forefront of these hurdles, can be addressed by assessing the end-to-end content supply chain, looking for opportunities to automate, and using insights to personalize the delivery to the individual. Streamlining the approval processes while mitigating risk remains the biggest challenge. Emerging technologies can automate the build of assets in shorter timeframes and automate packaging and submission, enabling delivery of content in a more personalized manner at times that are relevant in the decision process. When we know what type of content a customer is likely to engage with at granular levels, we can optimize what they see, in which order and at what timing. By pairing that knowledge with a strategic shift in content development based on what customers want or gaps in content available in moments that matter, automation and digital technology can help deliver messaging in unique ways via reps, headquarters and medical to patients, assembled and personalized to their preferences.


In other industries, platform approaches are increasingly coming into play. Platform strategies connect end-to-end processes, streamline execution, eliminate manual steps, increase data and understandings about systems, people and customers, and enable an agile environment. Using a mix of in-person and digital to engage customers, using tools and technologies to deliver information, and increasing visibility across the organization to promote collaboration are all possible. The ability to address gaps in the user experience at a rapid pace is enhanced. Leveraging AI and machine learning to identify risks and prompt mitigation strategies in rapidly changing environments can reduce timelines while accounting for risk. This approach ties together the organization’s processes and the customers’ experience to achieve successful business outcomes and benefit pharma’s customers. 

Digital is today’s X-factor

The pandemic won’t last forever, but many of the changes seen across industries will. The “winners” will be those who prioritize digital and necessarily upskill their organizations to take advantage of the digital technologies, change to automated processes and learn how to rapidly adjust strategies to better serve in a 1:1 model versus a singular approach for the masses. Pharma can take cues from other industries, disrupt old ways of thinking and redesign its approach—but in order to do that they must first break down the silos in their organizations and work more synchronously. We’re not going back to how businesses engaged with customers pre-2020. Pharma organizations that fully embrace prioritizing digital in their organizations will leapfrog the competition.

Add insights to your inbox

We’ll send you content you’ll want to read – and put to use.

About the author(s)