Conker season coming up – Prepare your weapons

Falling off the drug patent cliff…and surviving.

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Over the last 5 years the pharmaceutical industry has been faced with a tsunami of blockbuster drug patent expirations. Without patent protection, originator drugs, and the companies that manufacture them, are exposed to market competition from lower-priced generics which can quickly siphon off profits. It is estimated that generic competition has eroded in excess of $200 billion in global drug sales during that 5 year period and that figure is only set to grow as more drugs move ever closer to the ‘patent cliff’.

Faced with such an impact on profitability, there is no doubt that Big Pharma needs to take stock of the marketing strategies it employs to protect its investment in blockbuster drugs. Without refocus of these strategies, not only will they see a fall in profits specific to any given drug as generic competition bites, they will also see a fall in investor confidence for the company as a whole, which can have much more lasting and disastrous consequences. 

Protect and Survive

There are a number of commercial strategies commonly employed to extend the life of drugs post patent. These can include reconfiguring the product to deliver ‘new’ variants such as modified release or combinations products, or moving from a prescription-only medicine to an over-the-counter one post-patent. With a little foresight, much can be done to head off the inevitable post-patent competition well in advance of the expiry date.

The rise of the generic, and more recently biosimilars, has exposed the need to exploit, manage and protect the power of the brands pharma companies own. The understanding that brand management can pay dividends also needs to extend to any new brands that are in development, since the process should start at birth.

Despite the branding process being pursued with greater vigour than ever before, the pharma industry is still guilty of concentrating too heavily on product-attribute branding. Focusing on the communication of the functional values of the product is perfectly understandable given that we are in an era of evidenced-based medicine. But whilst communication of functional values, such as clinical efficacy and product safety, are obviously of high priority for any pharmaceutical, they are USPs that can be quickly and easily eroded, or removed completely by copy medicines. 

Creativity to enhance emotional buy-in

All too often the rational messages of the product have been communicated at the expense of more inherent emotional values of the brand. For branded drugs to be able to survive post patent, consideration must be given to developing more emotional or expressive values of brands over traditional functional attributes, and this needs to be done well in advance of patent expiry. Brands take time to build, and last minute panics as patent expiry looms will never be able to deliver on such a short-term investment. Get it right from the outset though, and pharma brands are capable of more than survival after patent expiration, they can thrive.

So where does this take us creatively? Well, if communication propositions are developed that answer emotional needs rather than functional ones, we’ll start to see creative ideas that engage and stimulate. Ideas that build a relationship with the audience and ones that are founded on empathy and trust in both product and company.

For decades the battle cry of pharma brands has been ‘differentiate or die’ and this adage is certainly true. It’s just that to-date, differentiation has been too much about size – a greater ‘this’ or a smaller ‘that’. When faced with copy medicines, the ‘my dad’s bigger than your dad’ stance doesn’t stack up any longer.

Differentiation simply means being seen to be different and if this can be achieved with a deep rooted emotional bond with the prescriber that transcends functional performance, you’ll stand a much better chance of brushing aside copy medicines that come along with very rational ‘me too’ messaging. After all, personality is a very difficult thing to copy.

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