Seventeen years ago I wrote that the biggest problems facing the pharmaceutical industry were all self-imposed. The biggest problem: I call it “Inverted Focus.” That’s when firms make decisions based on their own biased assessments of their products and their capabilities without really understanding their customers and their environment. I know this sounds harsh, but it’s hard to deny.

By failing to look outside, we miss important things that determine real success. We market and price products the way we think they should be—not the way they are. We also think about our competitors as morons who will cheat to succeed. Funny thing: They think the same thing about you. Rather than competing with imaginary adversaries and assuming you have an understanding of what’s going on in the market, look outside of your company.

Natural Positioning

Perhaps this is the biggest mistake pharmaceutical marketers make: They absolutely refuse to consider where and how their products will actually be used, as opposed to how they want them used. Several years ago, Juliet Goodfriend, founder of the marketing research firm SMC, wrote about understanding a product’s “natural position,” that is, where the market sees and uses your product. Prescribers often use a product differently from what the company wants (all want their product to be the “gold standard”). When the market selects a natural position for your product and you fight it, you are asking your customers to do something against their better judgment—not a winning strategy.

If you have solid scientific support for, and an understanding of what the market wants, you may change minds. But if you ask for a position your customers don’t see as a fit, that’s asking for trouble. Take antibiotics. Every firm launching a new antibiotic wants it to be the first-line drug—it ain’t gonna happen! Antibiotic stewardship relegates every new antibiotic to late-line therapy. Asking a clinician to use your antibiotic before trying older agents flies in the face of appropriate medical practice—don’t do it. Instead, understand how, and under what conditions, your drug will be used and position and price it accordingly.

When Warner Lambert launched Lipitor they expected a small share of the market, as the fifth statin to enter. A comparative study (called the Curves Trial) showed it to be the most potent statin, at a time when very few patients were reaching their health goals. In the right place and at the right time, Lipitor became 10 times larger than its makers ever dreamed. That wasn’t the marketing—it was the drug.

Looking outside your firm and past your own product enables you to understand the motives of the players. Physicians want to treat patients in the best way but need to balance time and cost pressures. They seek to simplify by relying on drugs with few side effects—clinical or otherwise.

What is an “otherwise” side effect? Patient complaints about cost, dealing with prior authorizations, fighting through complex titration or dosing issues. Think of it as “physician quality of life” and try to understand how your product (or your competitors) might enhance or reduce it. Can you fit that into your marketing plan?

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