This Year, Ignore Cost at Your Own Risk

It’s August. For many pharmaceutical marketers, that means brand-planning time: All-day meetings, 150-slide presentation decks, SWOT workshops in stuffy conference rooms—you know the drill.

No matter what brand you support, I’m guessing there’s a bullet in the “Threats” section of your SWOT this year that reads something like this:

  • Frustration over rising cost of drugs could hurt access to our brand.

I’m also guessing that, after the requisite discussion and executive head nodding, you’re probably not going to act on this threat at all.

Hey, we already have a co-pay card and patient assistance foundation. Box checked.

But shrugging shoulders and dissociating from pharma’s cost issue isn’t a good strategy. Not this year. This is an election year. For pharma, it’s the election year. Candidate Clinton has already run ads targeting the “predatory” pricing of Valeant Pharmaceuticals and taken swipes at disgraced ex-Turing Pharmaceuticals CEO, Martin Shkreli. Candidate Trump has said he will “negotiate like crazy” to reduce Medicare payments to drug makers. The rhetoric is resonating with U.S. consumers, 83% of whom look favorably on Trump’s plan to let Medicare negotiate lower drug prices, according to an August 2015 Kaiser Health Tracking poll.

HCPs are on high alert as well. Oncologists in particular have been refusing to prescribe pricey drugs, led by Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. (Physicians there once took a drug off formulary, then penned an op-ed in The New York Times calling the product “phenomenally expensive.”) CVS/Caremark dropped dozens of blockbusters from its insurance coverage last year, including Viagra and Abilify.

Look, we knew this was coming. Cost has always been a key consumer motivator outside of pharma. It’s been drummed into creative briefs and splayed across billboards and TV screens. You know these slogans by heart:

  • “15 minutes could save you 15% or more.”
  • “Because you’re worth it.”
  • “Always low prices…always.”

When’s the last time you saw a DTC spot touting a product’s value? This year, for marketers willing to play a different game, that oft-ignored SWOT bullet could become a powerful brand differentiator. How?

For one, we can freeze our cost. Not forever; long enough to change the conversation. Walmart seized an opportunity as inflation raged in the 1980s. While other retailers were raising prices, Sam Walton found a way to lower them. Always. Today, most of those other retailers are out of business.

We can acknowledge the burden. It’s long been known people are highly receptive to emotional advertising. A key reason comes from neuroscience: Mirror neurons fire when we observe emotion, causing us to experience it as our own. Imagine a pharma campaign focused not on an animated character or clever wordplay, but on how a brand is helping patients pay for the medicine they need.

Finally, we can identify alternative value to offset our pricing. Not just co-pay cards. To differentiate, we need to go deeper. A brand director I know is pursuing a clinical study that would quantify how his product reduces overall health system costs. Another is exploring a “house calls” program that would bring trained nurses into patients’ homes, fostering successful care transitions.

Or, we can always leave that SWOT bullet alone and hope—in this year of Martin Shkreli and Hillary, of Donald and Bernie—that our competitors will ignore it too.

  • Jeff Greene

    Jeff Greene is Partner, Digital Strategy Lead at New Solutions Factory. Jeff Greene is a strategist, thought leader, and agency intrapreneur who has spent more than 18 years guiding clients into the digital age. Jeff inspires healthcare marketers to improve their multichannel effectiveness by focusing relentlessly on the customer.


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