Why oncology marketers need to go back to basics

Oct. 21, 2018 | Article | 7-minute read

Why oncology marketers need to go back to basics

The oncology market is evolving quickly, and with more than 600 products in the late-stage pipeline, the competition is fierce. “Me too” products are much more common and the pace of clinical data releases is at an all-time high, so as pharmaceutical companies are looking for opportunities to not only keep up but also get an edge on the competition, they’re looking to what’s new in oncology marketing. But is that the right question? 


When we look at how oncology marketing has operated over the last decade—whether marketing teams are from companies with big blockbuster drugs or have roots in general medicine, deep oncology expertise or startup-level experience—we see a number of common missteps that have snuck into daily practice and are hindering teams’ ability to excel with marketing. Maybe the question shouldn’t be about what’s the latest new thing in marketing but rather about getting back to marketing fundamentals to differentiate your brand from the crowd.


Here’s how to avoid a few common traps and ensure that your team is maximizing its marketing effort:


1. Avoid the “vanilla” brand plan. In an effort to think big and maximize the value of the brand, teams are mixing aspiration with strategy. We’ve worked with some brand teams who believed that being “best in class” was their unique and compelling strategy. But, in fact, this is the goal; it’s the way in which teams try to become best in class that requires the strategic thinking.


When brand teams focus on the goal rather than the strategy, they focus on what they want to achieve instead of what customers need. As a result, the customers’ value story gets lost, as does the external lens toward the competition. The result is a “strategy” that lacks overall direction—a bland, lackluster plan that fails to align people on the key priorities for success.


How to avoid this trap: Take your brand name and logo off of your brand plan. Would you recognize it as your own? Could this plan belong to any other brand in your market? If so, then you haven’t been clear or bold enough in articulating a specific direction for your brand that will differentiate it from its competitors.


2. Take a stand and pick a position. The days of big blockbuster drugs supporting an oncology portfolio are behind us, so it’s not a surprise that brand teams are looking to get as much revenue as possible out of each product. This is putting pressure on teams to “win the indication,” and brands are prone to trying to be everything to everyone.


The challenge is that, if every company is trying to be everything to everyone, confusion is created in customers’ minds as to the right product for the right patient. However, marketing teams that are willing to make choices and articulate a sequential strategy for owning priority patients are more likely to stand out in the customer’s mind.


How to avoid this trap: Ask yourself, Are my competitors all doing the same thing or going after the same patients? For example, you may aim to be the brand of choice in first line. Can you imagine your competitors choosing to not be the brand of choice? To avoid this trap, create a market map that clearly defines the patient landscape where you and each competitor has a right to win.


3. Plan for the worst, not for the best. With brand teams under the gun to do more with less, they often feel like they don’t have the time to do anything. They rarely stop to think about the future of the market and how to pivot if things go against plan. To quell any potential fears, marketing teams often adopt an optimistic mindset that certain scenarios are unlikely to play out and aren’t worth the time to further investigate. We’ve seen teams assume that severe side effects won’t be a big deal, and then they are, or that competitive events will only be a blip in the share trend, and then they aren’t. It’s not that the teams didn’t know about the potential future events, but they fell prey to optimism bias and didn’t take the time to challenge their thinking and ask the critical “What if?” questions.


How to avoid this trap: First off, ask your team: “When was the last time you did competitive scenario or contingency planning as a brand team? Has it been more than three months?” If so, you may not be as prepared as you should be. Then ask the team: “What’s the worst case you’ve planned for? What could be worse than that?” That’s the scenario that you should be brainstorming around.


4. Develop a strategy based on customers’ attitudes, not behaviors. Behaviors are one of the easier customer changes to track, so it’s no wonder that many teams do their planning around behavioral customer segments (if they’re segmenting at all). We’ve seen countless strategies where the goal is to transform the large-volume, low-share doctors into advocates for the product, but not all large-volume, low-share doctors are the same.


Think of it this way: Many people are vegetarian but for different reasons. Some are vegetarian for health reasons, some for religious reasons, some for animal advocacy reasons, but they all have the same behavior: They don’t eat meat. If you want to convince a vegetarian to eat your brand of granola bars, the approach needs to differ depending on the reason that a person is a vegetarian. Different approaches will resonate with the health-conscious consumer vs. the animal activist. This same thinking needs to apply to oncology marketing. Not all oncologists are the same, and we need to get better at tailoring our strategies to meet the underlying attitudes and reasons that drive customer behaviors.


How to avoid this trap: Ask yourself, What’s the barrier that I’m trying to overcome with the customer? A good barrier could be, “does not value biomarker testing” or, “values convenience for the practice.” If your barrier is behavioral—such as, “does not use enough of your product”—then you’re missing the customer insight. Ask yourself, Why is the customer behaving the way they are? The strategy should be designed around the answer to that question.


5. Let the strategy drive the tactics. Strategy is hard, but tactics are easy. Tactics are often much sexier than strategy with their glossy ads and their flashy digital campaigns. This gets exacerbated when teams incorporate a tactic that they’re “dying to try”—like the next mechanism-of-action hologram or the cool mobile app for patients—and then they’re retroactively designing the strategy to support it.


This can be particularly challenging for large teams that have to build alignment across a diverse set of stakeholders (like the global team with the same molecule but multiple indications). The result is that teams ultimately end up doing low-impact or “table stakes” activities rather than using the strategy to inform which activities are worth the time and investment.


How to avoid this trap: Ask yourself, What is the behavior change that I’m trying to drive with the tactic, and what strategy does that support? If you can’t make the link between the strategy and the tactic, then you are leading with tactics instead of the strategy and need to step back to evaluate how you’re going to deliver on your strategy.


So what’s new in oncology marketing? It’s going back to basics and creating the time and the discipline in the process to invest in the fundamentals of strategic planning. It’s hard and it takes focus, but without it, the biggest data engine, the strongest predictive algorithms, the slickest mobile app and even the latest virtual reality goggles will all be limited in driving success for the brand if there’s no clear strategic direction. Teams need to turn to the fundamentals, supported by data and insights, to make decisions on marketing strategy and avoid “vanilla” results.

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