A Golden Era For Innovative Pharma Marketing

One of the great pluses of working in pharma marketing: Knowing that the products we’re promoting make a real difference in real lives. People don’t buy them casually; they really need them.

However, until recently our role has been less crucial than some parts in the value chain, such as the scientists who create the products, the factories that produce them and the healthcare professionals who use them in patient care. I say “has been” because the pharma marketing role is changing. Thanks to new technologies, new channels and the widening cadre of companies interested in health, we have increasingly more scope to be more innovative and make more of a difference.

From Product Focus to Patient Experience

The change is driven by the interaction of three factors: Technology, psychology and more holistic perspectives on chronic conditions. Together, they favor a strategic shift away from the traditional pharma marketing vertical product focus. Thanks to the reach of technology and the insights of psychology, pharma marketers can now aspire to play a more crucial role in fostering improved healthcare outcomes.

We can help create personal product and service platforms that enhance patient lives beyond the effects of medication. This is a lot bigger aim than the traditional marketing objectives: Persuading people to use our clients’ products. It’s a prospect that’s attracting a broader range of talent than has traditionally worked in pharma marketing—and this is creating a positive feedback loop of ambition and capability to create innovative pharma marketing.

There’s no end to the ways that pharma marketing can innovate, but for now, these three fruitful approaches have proved themselves in practice.

The Marketing Innovation Lab

The Marketing Innovation Lab (MIL) isn’t necessarily a physical space, but rather a mindset and set of programs and protocols that involve close collaboration between the client company and the agency by forming a core working team over a period of months to explore opportunities. Roles are blurred as they pool their experience and expertise to understand the life of target patients with specific chronic conditions.

The broad brief is to identity patients’ needs beyond medication for their conditions and come up with solutions that could address those needs. In a typical recent project our MIL team grouped needs exploration into categories of physical, social and medical, which patients may experience in three locations: Home, work and travel.

The lab cycle starts with learn, a deep dive look into patients’ lives. This segues into ideate, where the advisor team brainstorms research challenges and opportunities. The next step is imagine, where they map out how to turn those ideas into outcomes. At this point the team may reach out to third parties to check out possibilities.

For example, apparel or footwear brands may be part of a solution that involves wearables. Financial services companies may be involved in a solution that involves identifying condition-specific navigation and help. And, automotive OEMs may be part of the solution for mobility-related challenges. The solutions that emerge are then trialed in pilot, where concepts and prototypes are tested out on a small scale, feeding into the validate or kill stage. Concepts that prove themselves in practice and can be commercialized go into launch.

In some respects the Innovation Lab follows a classic process for coming up with new ideas. What’s new is the integrated collaboration between agency, company and third parties, and the relentless focus on the patient experience.


If the Innovation Lab has roots in pre-digital approaches, Hackathons are firmly rooted in digital culture. They involve physically bringing together as many as several hundred smart volunteers from a range of disciplines that are led by technologists for a couple of days. They focus on creating software, apps or digital experiences for patients with specific health challenges. At the start of the Hackathon participants are briefed on the condition and may have access to simulators that give them a direct experience of living with it. As they work out their solutions to the headlined challenges, participants can consult in real time with experts on the condition who may be agency people, healthcare professionals, caregivers or patients.

At the end of the event, ideas are evaluated and cash prizes—along with bragging rights—are awarded to the top ideas. Although ideas emerging from Hackathons haven’t yet revolutionized healthcare, they have definitely moved the needle for broader treatment of some conditions.

Incubators and Start-ups

Hackathons typically tap the thinking of healthcare naïfs—people with little direct experience of the field who bring fresh perspectives to the task. By contrast, tapping healthcare incubators and startups is a great way to find fresh insights and energy combined with more sector knowledge.

Incubators and startups are essential resources for pharma marketers who are serious about innovation and creating long-term relationships in the industry. They provide us with outstanding entrée to entrepreneurs and emerging companies with new ideas and also welcome experienced industry professionals who can provide encouragement and mentoring, in a classic value exchange. With relationships like this, pharma marketers can be ideally placed to broker introductions, facilitate conversations and help commercialize programs.

Startups in the healthcare space tend to work on one of four major areas. Those focusing on healthcare practitioners are generally looking to help them improve efficiencies and patient outcomes. The patient and consumer area splits between health and fitness apps, and solutions for chronic illness patients and their families. Medical devices is a huge area that includes prosthetics, biometrics, diagnostics and surgical. Data and connectivity solutions are all about linking the other parts together so that information flows effectively between patients and healthcare providers.

Beyond Marketing as We Know It

Pharma marketers who champion a “patient experience” approach are challenging the established boundaries of marketing. They find the new avenue of competitive advantage comes from having a first in-market mentality to identify partners and create disruptive executions. To achieve this, they can—and should—connect with every part of the value chain: Upstream in the board room and the lab, as well as downstream with patients and HCPs. The more varied talent is attracted to pharma marketing, the better we will be equipped to span the whole value chain and help create valuable experiences—the sort that make a difference to patients’ lives and drive our clients’ business.


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