Finding a New Marketing Rx for Pharmaceuticals

By Safian, Gail R. | Public Relations Journal, March 1994 | Go to article overview

Finding a New Marketing Rx for Pharmaceuticals


Safian, Gail R., Public Relations Journal


Changes in purchasing patterns and pricing practices are influencing how new drugs are marketed. Recent attacks by the Clinton administration, centered on the high cost of drugs, have put the industry on alert. Meanwhile, a boom in generic and over-the-counter medications presents marketing opportunities on a global scale.

Multiple forces are causing radical shifts in pharmaceutical marketing and communications plans today. Issues of fair pricing, the distribution of experimental drugs to terminally ill patients, and how to control drug costs have been raised in recent media reports on the Clinton Health Care Plan and its possible ramifications. In fact, many of these issues concerned pharmaceutical marketers years before health reform became a national obsession.

Generics are knocking the pricing platforms out from under a wide range of medications, from sophisticated and expensive antibiotics to over-the-counter (OTC) pain remedies. The mushrooming growth of OTC products that were once dispensed by prescription only has also influenced the marketplace. This trend has been sparked, in part, by the large numbers of brand-name products that are losing patent exclusivity in the '90s.

Pharmaceutical manufacturers are looking to global markets for increased sales of both prescription and OTC drugs. Executives at public relations firms and their drug company clients are setting core global marketing strategies that leave local options up to professionals in the target market. Companies once identified with a single nation are developing multinational approaches. While American-based pharmaceutical makers are eying Europe and Japan, their counterparts in those countries are seeking greater penetration of U.S. markets.

Target new markets

Pharmaceutical manufacturers in the developed countries also view developing nations as areas for market expansion. Programs aimed at such nations often require customized educational materials aimed at a handful of health care professionals and other influentials.

U.S. target audiences have changed drastically in the past few years, too. Once physician-driven, the U.S. market for prescription drugs now has many influentials. Individual patients and patient groups are an increasingly vocal force on drug price, insurance reimbursement and selection. "Managed care" specifiers, such as insurance adjusters, medical support staff, HMO or hospital administrators and government bureaucrats all have similar powers. Each of these audiences, along with more traditional physician and pharmacist groups,

must be approached with specific appeals to influence their product decisions. Thus, the fundamental messages and the means of delivery are changing.

Selling the "new" influentials

For decades, the target audience for most prescription pharmaceutical product marketing has been physicians. Doctors needed to be educated about drugs, and doctors--in the office and in the hospital--prescribed drugs. Educational and promotional public relations programs were effective in creating awareness and communicating information about clinical efficacy, product attributes and patient management. Pharmacists in drug stores and hospitals filled prescriptions written by doctors, and patients as a rule took the drugs as prescribed.

With the rise of consumerism, patients became an important target. People were informed about the signs, symptoms, consequences and treatment of diseases and were encouraged to visit their physicians. Sometimes, they have been encouraged to ask for specific medications.

Today, the patient still can ask, and the physician still can prescribe any medication he or she wants to, but that decision can be countermanded--or at the very least, challenged--by:

* Pharmacists in independent and chain drug stores, and in pharmacy departments of mass merchandisers, who can substitute a generic with a lower price and higher profit margin;

* Hospital or managed care organization formularies, the committees of physicians, pharmacists, purchasing agents and others that determine the limited selection of products the organization's pharmacy will stock;

* Mail-order pharmacies, which may substitute a cheaper alternative or generic version, and their customers, who gladly accept it;

* Insurance plans (and prescription card programs), which may refuse to cover certain medications. …

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