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Pharma in focus – rethinking GTM in a crowded market

Pharma in focus – rethinking GTM in a crowded market

The headache of go-to-market

At &us, we have a long history of supporting clients in the pharma sector, and we’ve been doing some thinking alongside our partners, exploring interesting questions and making observations about the market and its shifting context. 

One thing we can’t escape is that the sector is at an interesting stage of market maturity. 

What do we mean by that?  Well, over half of the top 20 pharma firms by revenue have been around for over a century, with most of the remainder in operation for over 50 years. This has paved the way for large product portfolios and potentially bulky operating models. On the other side of the equation, they face heavy market regulation and entrenched buying patterns from their customers. Several forces now combine that are leading to a real go-to-market (GTM) headache for many pharma companies.

Facing this current perfect storm could be said to include these aspects: 

  1. New drugs and groundbreaking treatment modalities are being developed more quickly as innovations in R&D and clinical trials improve. 
  2. At the same time, regulations in most countries limit the face time that salespeople have with healthcare practitioners (HCPs).
  3. With increasingly large portfolios, new offerings must compete for increasingly scarce buyer attention against each company’s more established offerings. 
  4. Finally, buying behaviour and commissioning frameworks in the sector are slow to shift towards the new treatment modalities being developed. 

Given all that context, sales people have less and less time to educate their buyers on new offerings, and the net return on pharma R&D continues to decline* – a trend which began in the 2010s. 

No doubt, solving this problem will be complex, and industry-level change would be ideal. However, our thinking is moving in the direction of shaping the questions that will help individual companies start making shifts in evolving their GTM approach. Otherwise, continuing to do things the traditional way by investing more and more money into larger salesforces just won't be sufficient to give new products and services their chance to get real profile and penetration.

Evolving historical approaches

The challenge isn’t really identifying the options for GTM innovation – there are plenty to pick from. The challenge is in backing a small number of GTM solutions sufficiently well within and across markets to drive impact.

It’s well understood that bringing a new drug to market is a lengthy and resource-intensive process, with 12-17 years and an average of $2.3bn going into bringing each product to market. This is nearly double the average investment of $1.3bn investment required less than a decade ago.* So the pressure on each launch is increasing. 

The traditional methods for GTM planning and execution are also well understood. Typically, a large-scale intensive waterfall or sequenced planning exercise is carried out, involving hundreds of internal stakeholders. Each country often has its own dedicated team focusing on market access, advocacy, and compliance. The role of marketing is largely focused on producing assets that salespeople can use to translate scientific research into educational material.  

There is much that works and is necessary here. However, brands are feeling that this alone is increasingly a weighty, potentially slow and sometimes siloed approach. We wonder if there are opportunities to explore additional strategies to augment established approaches. 

So, what could this look like? 

Well, as it turns out, there are plenty of options.  It seems the real challenge, though, is in execution: being brave enough to divert time and budget and take some measured risks on a small number of innovation experiments while cutting boldly through the challenges identified earlier. 

Experiments begin with good questions. Here are three priority questions we would consider starting with:

1. What about proactively driving patient and professional advocacy?

The last fifteen years have seen an enormous shift in most sectors to engage both more directly and more widely with consumers and partners, particularly through digital channels. We wonder about the potential to leverage digital media and stimulate both online and in-person communities to create awareness and demand even before the sales team steps in. There are many examples of this in Pharma, including Biogen’s engagement with spinal muscular atrophy groups ahead of the Spinraza launch. 

In design thinking, engaging with users early on - ideally making them almost part of the product team - is a standard approach in many industries, and we can see it making an enormous difference where pharma brands create and engage disease-specific communities - like the Biogen example. By investing here, pharma companies will reap the benefits of creating patients and healthcare professional advocates much earlier in the process, ensuring the market is well-informed and receptive to the sales message when the time comes.

2. What could radically enhanced collaboration across countries to maximise reuse and impact look like?

This comes under the banner of shifting ways of working. And there is much more than can be done beyond the quick wins of a regular Zoom call between country representatives to discuss options. 

Trialling redesign of an organisation’s human systems for pooling thinking, co-creating materials and testing concepts in real-time across geographies is very doable – and is commonplace in many other settings and industries. Pharma companies who set up their launch strategies with roles and incentives that initiate real cross-country alignment and knowledge-sharing will stand to benefit considerably.  Using technology and ways of working that allows insights and learnings to be rapidly shared means strategies can adapt fast, and efficiency of effort in advance of and during a launch year is greatly increased.

3. How might we avoid underestimating the use of (fairly) new channels?

Novo Nordisk’s diabetes influencer campaign and Boehringer Ingelheim’s involvement in the ‘My COPD Action Plan’ - along with many others - have shown that pharmaceutical companies can make credible use of social media and influencer marketing. 

By amplifying messaging, it’s more than possible to build a following and credibility within specific disease communities. Influential figures have outsized impact in sharing personal experiences, raising awareness, and building anticipation for upcoming treatments in an authentic and relatable way. Moreover, companies (including Novartis and Pfizer) have successfully created and hosted experiential marketing events that offer patients, researchers and practitioners the experience of engaging in simulations, workshops, and hands-on experiences that showcase the drug's potential before it hits the market. 

Going beyond best practice

We’ve listed three questions that could form the initial basis of trialling fresh GTM approaches, but there are lots of other avenues open to companies wishing to proactively go beyond best practice. We’re thinking about virtual or augmented reality, for example, and the exciting new opportunities that hardware like Apple Vision Pro unlock. Crowdsourcing platforms for co-creation, AI, chatbots, blockchain, engaging startup ecosystems with hackathons - the list goes on. Many of these options are already being experimented with across the industry. 

However, putting the shiny things away for the moment, our clear view is that returns will keep shrinking if GTM practices remain the same. We can’t just keep adding more to the salespersons list of what they have to communicate to their buyer in the increasingly compressed window of time they have with them. 

Need to accelerate your GTM and ready to embrace a new approach? Let’s talk.


Read more about our work with pharma

We've worked with Novartis for over 5 years on several projects – from transformation to product design. 

Read the Novartis case study