By Following Seven Key Steps (and Avoiding Four Perilous Pitfalls) the Successful Product Manager Can Produce a Powerful Presentation

The typical product manager (PM) graduates into product management not from a classic full-time MBA program but from top performance in another function, usually from the field. While this satisfies the criteria of success in product management— high drive, quick intelligence and stellar platform skills—the day-today core brand management skills are often missing, especially the experience and expertise necessary to write a marketing plan that has two lofty goals. The brand plan is a covenant with senior management on the brand’s objectives and selling platform to champion the brand internally. It is the compass for the brand team and the functions that support the brand (legal, regulatory, clinical affairs, advocacy, and so forth) so that their input on the brand is guided by the plan’s shared goals, strategies and tactics.

Sink or swim, managers are expected to learn on-the-job. We entrust, or rather expose, brands as large as Lipitor to business Darwinism. This model is similar to the old one: Hiring as many sales reps as possible, hoping the law of averages will compensate for the less stellar hires. Basically, the large sales force becomes the boot camp and training ground from which we often sift out the brand champions. The average sales force size of about 2,000 is about a third of the size in the recent past and since only about 100 make it through into the home office beyond a rotational assignment, this means 5% are selected or 95% are winnowed out through this process. Some of the 5% go into other functions, while some become product or marketing managers.

Aside from the laptop, BlackBerry, and the key to the desk, the manager is expected to know what to do from Day 1. In surveys done with PMs, some observations included: “My sales reps got better training on the products than I did. I had to find the training department just to get the sales training material so I could ramp up quickly on the disease state, the drug itself, and the organ systems my drug was designed to treat.” The new PM can read the therapeutic guidelines but these are not always in agreement or even clear.

In addition to inheriting the responsibility to drive a marketing plan from the previous manager, the new PM must also jump in at whatever point the brand is at during the planning cycle. There may not even be a plan to follow —just an impressive number of powerpoint slides (without speaker notes) compiled from the previous product manager’s archives. The brand plan, in short, is often an inherited document of staccato bullet points.

So how do you write a compelling plan? Here are the key steps:

1. Executive Summary

Before launching into the Situational Analysis, the Executive Summary should provide a prescient summary of the marketing plan, highlighting the key changes in business, results of objectives met and forward-looking strategies to meet the top three or four most critical business challenges, a couple of pieces of key data that drives the top strategies, and some high level tactics designed to execute on these strategies. The executive summary should be a “story” written in a style that excites, or at minimum intrigues. It is not just a synopsis. It is a tool that works hard to draw the target audience (generally senior management) into the story and persuade them to provide the requisite resources to optimize brand opportunities as identified in the marketing plan.
Pitfall #1: Avoid putting all you know from Market Research into the Executive Summary or the Situational Analysis.

2. Situational Analysis

Following the Executive Summary, the Situation Analysis is not a “work in progress,” but a cogent summary of:

  1. Market size, market share trend and overall category performance
  2. Market definition or redefinition, category saturation
  3. Key trends—PEST: Political, Environmental, Social, Technical (every legitimate article should have a sprinkling of acronyms)
  4. Prescribing and adoption behavior —word-of-mouth, therapeutic guidelines
  5. Awareness, attitude and usage among stakeholders—HCPs, payers, patients, KOLs
  6. Primary/secondary unmet needs among stakeholders
  7. Sensitization to payer posture— identify current and future product insertion in patient/physician paradigm
  8. KOL research focus and horizon of new molecular entities, diagnostic tools, devices or combination which may influence product life cycle
  9. Patient expectations from the category and your product, patient flow and patient journey
  10. Current and future competitive posture
  11. Product profile/perception among HCPs, payers, patients, and internal stakeholders such as the sales force

For example, let’s imagine that product K is going off patent in two years and the Rx market has flattened with imminent topline erosion, and your closest competitor in the same class is going off patent in a year. Key data to highlight in this particular situation is competitive intelligence on contracting trends since your product may have to aggressively contract to flank against generic pricing. Most marketing plans will have a vibrant PowerPoint showing a timeline of patent exposure but also relatively little else to tell the story of what the brand plans to do about it in the situation analysis section. The slide following this timeline slide is usually a market share slide and then an awareness and usage slide. While these are important data pieces, linking them to understand how the brand plan will respond to these data points is the more critical task of a marketing plan.

Let’s say in this hypothetical situation, Product K is in a category with several under-diagnosed markets. If, for example, this under-diagnosed segment is among Hispanic women, 40-60 years old then in this segmentation strategy the data pieces in the Situational Analysis should show a comparison of penetration between the general population and the Hispanic middle-aged women segment, disease incidence, access to information and diagnosis, payer dynamics in those markets, and so forth. In short, the Situational Analysis must contribute to building momentum in the story so that the payoff in the segmentation analysis not only flows seamlessly but enables the reader to get excited in an otherwise saturated category that initially appears to only be able to hold share through a downward price cycle. Each piece of data in the situation analysis should be selected carefully in a carefully constructed story to deliver on the payoff.
Pitfall # 2: Avoid making the Situational Analysis a historical narrative on the product performance from the previous year.

3. Segmentation Analysis

This section is the opportunity to scope the steps necessary to gain awareness, education, acceptance, and action to penetrate a selected segment. Other interesting data to add to this section could be trends (e.g. Hispanic segment is increasing by 8%, twice the rate of the general population at 4% hypothetically); communication issues (different parts of the country use different forms of Spanish); access (some Hispanic populations are in heavily contracted regions perhaps). In this example, hurdles to penetrate the segment should be outlined and prioritized so that the target audience can understand the rationale for the “ask” for specific resources to penetrate a specific segment.

4. SWOT Analysis

Also known as Strength, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats, some academics have labeled this as a “Silly Waste of Time,” which can happen if a brand team allocates a couple of hours of navel-gazing to hastily flip-chart some thoughts and pass this off as the SWOT “slide”.

Adding the competitive intelligence team helps the brand team reset their macro understanding to gain additional perspective. Sometimes war-gaming is useful to identify gaps in knowledge of potential Threats and even Opportunities.

If you are on a smaller brand or in a smaller marketing organization where you are a team of one, (many biotech product managers are in that situation), war-gaming will mean you will need to leverage broader resources outside of your firm. If you are resource-strapped, consider leveraging eager think tanks at academic institutions that are always looking for good case studies for their MBA marketing or competitive strategy courses. It is an exercise worth considering as long as a product manager can make sure the coordination does not sap too much time to educate the MBA team on the disease and category. In addition to war-gaming, this graduate commando force, if effective, can also identify key alternative strategies.
Pitfall # 3: Doing the SWOT analysis only among yourselves and not drawing on others even those who might point out serious flaws.

5. Alternate Marketing Strategies

The SWOT should identify several strategies, for example which Strengths can be used to leverage certain opportunities and competitive thrusts to mitigate Threats. In Step 5, you should provide the analytical work to frame the alternate strategies. For example, your organization may have a strength that can leverage an opportunity (Strategy 1) but the product itself has a strength that can minimize a threat (Strategy 2). However, if you have only a few anemic choices to make, all is not lost. One option may emerge as more attractive because it requires fewer resources, or another strategy may have priority because it can boost the brand’s short-term profitability.

6. Selected Strategies and Tactics

Strategy selection or prioritization hinges on calculated risk, projected payoff, time to payoff, and sometimes importance to senior management. Outline the resources needed for the selected strategy and it should be proportionate to the time and amount of payoff. Note that discarding some strategies and making a selection is in itself a strategic decision.

The tactics should map out a chronological, integrated communication platform among the key stakeholders —health care professionals, patients, and payers, aligning against the selected strategy and thereby paying off on the plan objectives. For example, if you are launching in an entirely new category or creating one, one of your strategies may be to increase awareness and acquisition of patients. The awareness initiatives may be shorter term with different segments targeted over a year (acute symptomatic need, moderate symptoms, or mild). But acquisition is a longer-term cluster of tactics that include educating, reinforcing and reassuring patients to seek treatment. Both initiatives have broad strokes in the healthcare professional and patient communication hub. The brand plan should have tactical milestones to ensure the synchronized professional/ patient outreach for optimizing market “voice.”
Pitfall # 4: Avoid a cluster of brilliant tactics that do not align with strategy.

7. Key Performance Indicators (KPIs): Short- and Long-Term Predictions/Forecasts

Although shown towards the end of the marketing plan, these two areas are critical since ultimately, the PMs need to hit forecast, and use the KPIs to adjust the plan. A powerful way of persuading the target audience to support the tactics is to use a sensitivity table on how the marketing goal can be reached if adjustments to the tactics can be made using the Key Performance Indicators (NRX, or TRX, share, awareness, etc) as the tools to drive adjustments to resource use.

The Post-Plan Strategy

Even after you have followed the above seven steps to write your marketing plan, there is still more work to be done. After all, it is an important to provide support to the analysis including calculations for market size, breakeven analysis, forecasts, or even just a second (more seasoned) opinion.

The marketing plan is a living document that provides a navigational tool for the organization to understand the brand goals and specific objectives as well as how the brand manager intends to reach those goals. The plan is less of a road map and more of a GPS tool that enables course correction to adjust for predicted and unpredicted hurdles, preliminary responses to market changes or competitor behavior.

The article began with a review of how product managers come into product management—by sheer force of excellence and talent—not experience. Learning by trial and error is expensive and unnecessary if you are fortunate to be in a larger marketing organization. After you have written a preliminary brand plan, take it to a more seasoned product manager even if he/she runs another category. It can be a humbling experience, but worthwhile. There are many unique nuances about your internal organization strength and weaknesses that another manager can point out, perhaps areas of opportunity you may not have considered just from a lack of experience.

I sometimes refer to the example of Roald Amundsen, the first man who documented reaching the South Pole. He knew from experience that it would be best to pack light and even use dogs as his team’s protein supply on their way back. It was not in his opponents’ (the English) internal makeup to kill their pack animals for food, and as such, the English party led by Robert Scott perished. Moreover, without conducting sufficient competitive intelligence, the English selected ponies that could not move easily in the snow and the men, not the animals ended up carrying their own supplies thus slowing them down and getting to the South Pole second to Roald Amundsen. Conversely, the Norwegian team’s strategic decision to use dogs instead of ponies led to more survival-inducing tactics and Amundsen’s ultimate victory.

Brand plans are not necessarily quite as life-and death as an expedition to the South Pole, but the early strategic decisions—the brand’s decisions of “dogs or ponies”—can lead to dramatically different outcomes. Even if you are a senior product manager, having a colleague on another brand review it may mean revising the plan yet again, but ultimately a better outcome.


Maybe, but the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle of Marketing assures that before the ink has dried on your marketing plan, market conditions will have changed. It does not mean you should not plan—it just means that if you respond and keep a vigilant eye, your plan will evolve naturally and you will be ready for. . . next year’s marketing plan.

  • Carolyn Choh is Vice-President, Group Account Director at Roska Healthcare Advertising, an independent communications agency based in Montgomeryville, PA. Choh heads up Roska's account team in urology and is very excited about the imminent launch of a new product in the category. An accomplished pharmaceutical executive with more than 20 years of U.S. and global experience in nearly every aspect of the industry, Choh has particular expertise in the area of women's health, having been an integral part of the pre-launch, launch, and lifecycle management team for the first morning-after pill approved in the U.S., which went BTC, a true win for women's health. She has utilized her diverse skill set to provide a wide assortment of consulting services for therapeutic areas including cardiology, endocrinology, pediatrics, and devices. Additionally, Choh was visiting professor at Saint Josephs University for 10 years. She taught a combined total of about 1,000 MBA and undergrads in Pharmaceutical and Healthcare Marketing in product management, sales management and market research.


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