“Patient-centric marketing will become a fundamental pillar in the future of pharma marketing”

Sumita Mohapatro Pani, Senior General Manager, Lupin speaks to Viveka Roychowdhury on the rewriting of the pharma sales and marketing playbook in the past two decades and highlights what makes pharma brand positioning so unique

Sumita, you have spent more than 24 years in pharmaceutical sales and marketing, across verticals spanning cardiology, neurology, psychiatry, nephrology, urology and oncology. Can you highlight a couple of major changes in pharmaceutical sales & marketing strategies in the past two decades? How do you see the integration of marketing strategies playing out?
There have been several major changes in the pharma industry over the last two decades, leading to a rewriting of the pharma sales and marketing playbook. Pharma firms have strategically intensified their focus on cardiological and respiratory disorders, diabetes, and neuropsychiatry due to a rise in their prevalence. They have also started paying more attention to oncology, nephrology and urology.

The concept of ‘Category Captainship’ has evolved from broad categorisation of ‘Chronic – Acute’ to Segment Captainship – Cardiology /Diabetology / Anti-infectives/ Neuropsychiatry etc. This is now further narrowing down to Therapy Captainship including ‘Anti hypertensives / Heart failure / Antiplatelets within Cardiology, Anti Epileptics /Antidepressants /Dementia etc. within neuropsychiatry and so on. Strategically, firms are working towards attaining Therapy Captainship which also ensures a level and fair playing field for the smaller players and new entrants.

The conventional levers of market creation including expanding therapy to new doctors, indication expansion, geography, deepening penetration in established markets, and building underrepresented markets have always been and continue to be important. However, going forward, market creation would entail changing the patient funnel by increasing awareness and treatment and in turn increasing the patient pool. Thus, the term patient-centric marketing /healthcare is moving beyond just being a ‘buzzword’ to becoming a fundamental pillar in the future of pharma marketing.

Leather bags containing 40 pages of visual aid with feature-benefit selling points, tons of samples, scientific literature, gimmicks, and other promotional materials have given way to sleek sling bags. These contain tablets for scientific communication, engaging brand ads, animations, studies, references, and latest updates pertaining to the brands. In-clinic brand promotion has also become totally paperless and dissemination of scientific information is faster than ever. We will also see virtual reality being used more.

Apart from this, integration of marketing strategies would play out in a big way. Firms will deploy brand promotion communications on various platforms, besides visual aids like social media, other digital platforms, app-based information etc. Though different communication would need varied degrees of scientific content, the consistency and integration in the essence of communication would need to be maintained.

Operationally, the conventional sales planning by representatives is evolving into a dynamic, analytically enabled model. This can provide the right insights to deliver the right interactions, to the right customer, at the right time. Going forward, we must prepare for the convergence of big data, automated analytics and real-time sales planning processes to stay ahead in the game.

What will be the most salient changes that you anticipate in the near future?
Though there are several changes on the cards, I would like to highlight the three most important ones that I anticipate in the near future.
1. Patient centricity
Some firms have made great strides towards patient centricity, while others have taken tentative steps. In the times ahead, firms would work on expediting their transformation to patient-centricity. This would mean empathising with the patients’ experience, what they value and need, and then placing them at the centre of business activity. For this, firms will need to build new capabilities, possibly set up a dedicated patient care department that hears them out and understand what will make them seek a doctor. They will also need to build patient advocacy through disease awareness and increase patient’s acceptability to the disease condition. Focus will also need to be given to patient experience by truly understanding and empathising with their condition and leading them to right diagnosis and treatment. This will further enhance patient engagement and firms will be able to work around what behaviour will impact patient’s adherence to medication. Based on patient segmentation insights, strategies would need to be tailored for each segment, with different channel mix and messaging. Firms will also need to collaborate with other industries such as IT, telecom, food, and fitness to deliver 360-degree treatment and experience to patients. Going forward, patients will be at the heart of all marketing and business efforts in the pharma industry.

2. Artificial intelligence
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is no longer a futuristic topic but something that has penetrated almost all aspects of our lives. This is also true for the pharma industry and marketers are already ramping up application of AI including in administration. This includes its use for handling paperwork, chatbots for patient interaction, CRM activities, patient databases, etc.
Going ahead, AI can immensely facilitate assistance throughout the patient journey from pre-diagnosis to adherence. For instance, a patient who has not been feeling well lately and is trying to search for the symptoms and related causes on an AI-enabled search engine. Based on her search behaviour, AI predicts that she might be prediabetic and pushes awareness information on type 2 diabetes targeted for her on the site she normally visits. Concerned about her health, the patient calls a doctor for an appointment. She undergoes all relevant tests, and an AI-enabled lab helps the doctor during diagnosis. The doctor designs a treatment for the patient and suggests certain lifestyle improvements. The patient then asks the bot to book an appointment with the pharmacist and an AI-enabled adherence app continues to remind her to take medication at regular intervals. She misses a dose and asks the chatbot about what should she do in this case; the bot sends a reminder to renew the medicine in a timely manner, and she is also able to connect with the AI- assisted patient support group on social media to stay on track. This is but one example of how AI can facilitate assistance to the patients throughout their treatment and management journey, thus making their life better. In the next five years, more AI-powered predictive models will help to better understand adherence, drop-off risks, coverage, reimbursement, treatment and clinical decisions, sales planning, ROI monitoring, etc. Marketing was once largely an art form in which creativity was paramount. Now, data will be integrated with this approach for more impact.

3. Compliance
In response to the changing business environment, shifting industry dynamics and regulations, the Indian pharma industry has made efforts towards ensuring compliant and ethical business practices in its marketing promotions. Going forward, there would be increased emphasis on better ethical standards of promotions and stringent adherence to compliance. Firms would need to set up robust processes to ensure compliance in their interaction with all stakeholders.

With so many generic brands, how do pharma companies create a unique brand positioning?
Pharma brand positioning is unique due to many reasons. First, the decision maker of choosing a brand is the HCP and the end user is the patient. Second, the pharma market is a cluttered branded generic market where given a molecule there are no less than 80 to 100 brands with minimal brand or benefit differentiation. Third, in other segments, the customers engage mindfully to buy a product. However, in the case of pharma products, it is the diagnosis that makes them opt for a certain category. For instance, a person buys luxury travel gear out of choice. However, they are likely to buy products for diabetes because they have been diagnosed with the condition.

Conventionally, brand positioning was designed around features and benefits of the brand, efficacy, safety, and dosing which would appeal to the HCP or the decision maker. For instance, 24-hour blood pressure control, OD dosing convenience, synergistic action etc. However, the trend has now become more patient centric. They are the ones diagnosed with health conditions and also the ones who will benefit from medication etc. Thus, the positioning should be around the impact that the brand promises to make in the patient’s life and how this will translate into benefits. A unique brand positioning is one that integrates the core unmet need and product benefits.

The process of brand positioning is also interesting and one of the models I follow and have found success with revolves around answering five questions.
For: The product is for treatment of patients with….
Is: Is the molecule …. with the proven efficacy in therapeutic areas of ….
That: enables the HCP to treat …
Because: …. Core differential action … core differential benefit
So: Helps patients live …(how it impacts the patient’s life for better .. )

What are the basic building blocks deployed by pharma companies to create profitable and sustainable business models, given the intrinsic challenges unique to this sector?
A company’s business model is the means by which it makes a profit, addresses its marketplace, develops offerings, and maintains business relationships. To build a sustainable business model, it is important to answer some pertinent questions

  • What is our current business model? Does it play sufficiently to our strengths?
  • What kind of company are we and what do we want it to be going forward?
  • Will our current business model enable us to expand into new markets and satisfy the expectations of our evolving customers?
  • If not, how big is the gap and what model do we need to reduce the gap?
  • Have we calibrated opportunities and risks of the new model? And how can we maximise the opportunities and minimise the risks?
  • Do we have a tactical plan ready?

Many new pharma companies have been launched and existing ones have also expanded in the last two decades. To build a sustainable business model, in the sales and marketing perspective, the right portfolio with high growth – high margin must be selected in line with the business goals. Manpower deployment (the major cost head) must be meticulously planned considering customer dispersion, segmentation based on thorough research, customer value proposition, deployment of key resources, formulating key operational processes, and mechanisms to capture and maximise ROI. A business that considers the above aspects goes ahead to become profitable and sustainable.

The pharma industry has many challenges around regulation, how do you see the sector’s growth in the coming decade, 2030?
According to a recent IPA report, the Indian pharma industry is expected to grow to about $80 to 90 billion by 2030. To achieve this growth, there is a need for regulatory support from the government including budgetary allocations for healthcare and promotion of innovation, a coherent pricing policy framework, simplification of regulatory approval processes, etc. The key challenges are around aggressive action on pricing, among other things. There is also a need for regulations on quality and creating an enabling environment for strengthening the domestic pharma industry. A strong, independent, and empowered regulatory system is the need of the hour in this sector. This can be made possible with concerted efforts by all stakeholders including the Indian pharma companies, the government and regulatory agencies and IPA, and drive the industry to achieve the 11 per cent to 12 per cent CAGR it aspires for.


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  • Vivek Hattangadi

    An excellent treatise on Patient-Centric Model of marketing by Sumita Mohapatra Pani

    Hope this reaches the eyes and ears of the Pharma India C-Suite

    My heartiest compliments to Sumita!

    Vivek Hattangadi