Few publications that consider the pharmaceutical industry’s participation in digital environments neglect to mention ‘marketing’ in some capacity.
We genuflect to ‘marketing’ so freely, deploy it in our discourse with such profligate frequency, and elevate the study of its operations to such a degree that a casual observer could be led to imagine that the concept of ‘marketing’ was in some way intrinsic to every facet of a pharmaceutical company’s success.
‘No marketing, no pharmaceutical company,’ one might conclude, as if no drug would be developed, no prescription would ever be written, nor any course of treatment embarked upon without it.
However, the premise upon which this post is based is that the exact opposite is in fact true, and that the continued pursuit of ‘marketing’ by the pharmaceutical industry as it is currently practiced has the potential to irreparably damage the industry’s reputation, further undermine health consumer trust in its operations, impact upon its profitability, and undermine its future viability.
So what is marketing?
‘Marketing’ as a concept is ideologically loaded, and classical definitions invariably either set out to belittle marketing as a perverter of truth, or defend it as a beacon of virtue. Neither position is particularly helpful. At its most simple, marketing can be defined as:
Numerous more nuanced, but not necessarily more insightful, definitions are of course available.
Over time, definitions appear to have become more neutral, perhaps suppressing the core idea at the heart of marketing: to promote products and services in a compelling way so as to either trigger a purchase decision, or to ameliorate brand perception in the eye of the consumer in order that future purchase decisions are influenced positively.
However, subsequent to the social turn in business, the idea that the leaden, press-release style proclamations that are the pharmaceutical industry’s stock-in-trade can somehow continue to exert (assuming they ever did) a direct influence over audiences which have so many other more attractive sources of health information to investigate looks far-fetched in the extreme.
Instead, the pharmaceutical industry must ask how it will convey information about its business and the products it brings to market in the future in such a way as to meet the dialogue-driven, conversational expectations of its audience within digital, and especially social, environments in order to afford itself the opportunity to establish a degree of indirect influence over time, assuming it deports itself appropriately, and offers balanced, credible content of high quality and relevance.
I see relatively little evidence of such an evolution taking place on the one hand, and no acknowledgment on the other of the fact that ‘marketing’ has proven itself to be neither immutable, nor a steadfast conceptual bulwark that the industry may rely upon during times of uncertainty, nor an inert lodestone from which it may discern a heading.
‘Marketing’ is in flux, and yet the pharmaceutical industry has for the most part neither elected to acknowledge this, nor attempted to define what has changed, nor undertaken any systematic investigation as to how existing practices have been impacted, nor responded to these complex and diverse challenges in a proactive and meaningful way. Not that I have seen shared, anyway.
What underpins these changes?
Principally, and optimally envisaged, health consumers are now more likely to take an active, participatory role in investigating their treatment options and to a greater or lesser extent will seek to co-create their care by sharing decision-making with their care team.
Patients or those undertaking research for them wish to acquire this information at a time, and in a setting that is convenient to them. Increasingly, this implies the acquisition of health information in an online and often mobile context, either through search, healthcare professional recommendation, or peer suggestion.
As a consequence, they will be more interested in accessing reliable, relevant, balanced, patient-facing, outcomes-oriented, evidence-informed health information about the therapeutics and treatment options available to them, ideally from the most authoritative sources available.
Pharmaceutical companies should be the authoritative, most audible, and most credible voice about their own products in digital environments. Pharmaceutical companies that can fulfil this requirement most effectively will also be those capable of building trust through regular appearances and interactions on heavily subscribed platforms favoured by patients and health consumers. They will also be the companies most likely to acquire peer recommendation on the basis of previous interactions, as well as being those best equipped to manifest their subject authority through the provision of high quality, relevant, reliable information.
In doing so, pharmaceutical companies that redefine marketing as a set of competencies built around informing and conversing with their customers across digital and physical environments rather than promoting product messages through multiple channels will not only be creating the conditions of possibility for improving patient outcomes, they will be also be indirectly influencing their interlocutors’ opinion of them, thereby building trust and brand resilience.
The social web has achieved two things.
Firstly, it has foregrounded the fact that orthodox ‘marketing’ as currently practiced by the pharmaceutical industry (particularly in its direct forms) and as patients expect to encounter it can only ever prove to be a trust-corrosive affront to the sensibilities of the health consumer.
Secondly, it has revealed ‘an initimate relationship between the object [marketing], the terminology [the socialised discovery and exchange of health information], and the corresponding conceptual system [the indirect, trust-affirmative, positive characteristics of influence between participants in networks over time] – a relationship which, once the object has been modified (once its ‘new aspects’ have been grasped), must necessarily induce a correlative modification in the system of ideas and conceptual terminology.’ (1)
If pharmaceutical marketers are able to cultivate sufficient self-awareness to discern its implications, the social turn in communications has the potential to bring marketing to a state of aletheia and realise the industry’s extraordinary potential to align the generation of strong revenue streams with the doing of social good. This is far from a flight of fancy; it will be mandatory for pharmaceutical companies looking to disseminate the social precepts that drive contemporary business across their enterprise.
In order not to alienate its audiences, but also to create the conditions wherein indirect influence may be created over time, the pharmaceutical industry needs to set aside the idea that ‘marketing’ involves promoting approvable product messages to healthcare professionals and patients, and consider the possibility that marketing has been redefined as a willingness to share freely and talk openly about balanced health information in settings that healthcare professionals and patients favour, at a time that is convenient to them, and in a volume that is proportionate to their interest in relation to the totality of issues they consider in treating or managing a condition optimally.
The pharmaceutical industry needs a new generation of marketers to redefine what ‘marketing’ is in a postmarketing age.
Citation: Louis Althusser & Étienne Balibar, Reading Capital (1968; London: Verso, 2009) p. 164
Image credit: ‘The true audience of healthcare conferences: it’s not what you think‘, Symplur