As Snow Companies’ 20th anniversary approached, my colleagues and I recently discussed why some pharma brands achieve better long-term recognition and adherence than others. We wanted to know: What do brands that manage to engage with patients throughout their product lifecycle have in common? What makes them different from brands that don’t? We concluded that three factors play a major role: People, innovation, and preparation. Let’s explore.

1. People: Authenticity and Diligence

You don’t “do” engagement to patients and caregivers. You stay in an ongoing dialog and engage with them in a sincere and consistent way. That requires all internal and agency staff who interact with patients to fully understand the why of their organization. Working with real patients is different than working with professional talent, so both the support infrastructure and the human approach needs to be different.

An “it’s just a job” attitude won’t do the trick. People need to care about outcomes and the work they put in to achieve them. It’s good to have learning moments, but there are aspects of the job—the regulatory (diligence) and the reputational (authenticity) ones—that have zero margin for error. A pilot can’t say, “it’s fine if we crash the plane today, we’ll do it better next time.” Neither can a pharma marketer treat patients as an afterthought.

2. Innovation: Agility and Nimbleness

At the same time, other aspects of the job aren’t as rigid. They allow for and demand new approaches. In business school, we’re sometimes conditioned to believe that innovation only comes from new market entrants—the Amazons and Teslas of the world shaking up stagnant industries. We tend to think that the new kids on the block succeed because they’re blissfully unaware of any boxes outside which to think. When you look closely however, you’ll realize that the newbies don’t enter into new endeavors entirely unprepared. They couple their innovative potential with experience. Amazon disrupting the pharmacy market? Only by hiring accomplished PharmDs to devise strategy, leverage connections, and anticipate roadblocks before they present themselves. SpaceX sending a mission to Mars? Not without skilled aerospace engineers.

In the real world, healthy companies ensure ongoing innovation through an internal process of renewal called training. Too often, companies focus on experience alone to make their hiring decisions. They underestimate the value of less-experienced but culturally aligned staff. You can, and should, train people to gain skills, but it is near impossible to train them for attitude and mindset. That, they need to bring to the table themselves.

In other words: For companies to excel at innovation and disruption, leadership needs to find a happy balance between expertise and learning among their staff. Companies need an influx of rookies to nurture. And those novices, as long as they bring the mindset, act like a fertilizer that promotes the growth of innovation. Long-term innovation does not come from new businesses that emerge and disappear as quickly as their new ideas, but from the businesses that grow old over time.

3. Preparation: Tools and Processes

Established operations have another advantage. Over the course of doing business, they’ve built or acquired a custom-made infrastructure that supports their specific needs. That type of infrastructure is also critical to patient engagement.

How do you hope to engage with patients if there are no tools and processes to safeguard sensitive data? If there’s no dedicated part of the business that handles high levels of engagement on an ongoing basis? What’s needed is both the systems and processes as well as a workforce that’s trained to apply those tools correctly.

Patient engagement left to companies that work in related but different fields, such as PR or advertising, is at risk of crashing badly. It’s like leaving your car wash company to fix your engine. Even with the best of intentions, they’re neither equipped nor capable to do it, no matter how many cars they’ve detailed before.

Sustained Involvement

More and more brands rely on patient engagement to establish a strong market position. The most successful will maintain relevance by staying involved in a sustainable, regulatory-compliant way.

The three keys to lasting patient engagement are simple: People as opposed to gadgets; nimble innovation without overengineering or making easy things hard; and preparation—giving employees the infrastructure, skills, and tools for the job.

Patients and caregivers want to engage with people who care and companies that meet them where they are. Patients also expect companies to take their health and support needs as well as the regulatory guardrails seriously. It takes experience to meet all those expectations. Good patient marketers know that and prioritize long-term patient commitment.

After all, patients and their caregivers deserve no less than that.


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