Positioning: Impossible!

Circle in SquareFor most of us, working in pharmaceutical marketing is a joy. We are challenged to use our brains daily and we find the marriage of science and creativity a fulfilling career path. But there are at least two aspects of mainstream advertising where I become jealous of our consumer packaged goods brethren: 1) when they get to make beer commercials, and 2) when they are developing new positioning concepts.

I’m quite sure I would struggle writing a creative brief targeted at 24-year-old men who drink beer, and I probably would find trying to differentiate soap or toilet paper equally frustrating. But it has to be easier than positioning new pharmaceutical brands, doesn’t it? So I ask, “What makes positioning pharmaceutical brands now so especially difficult?”

There are at least two major challenges to landing on a strong positioning statement for many of our clients.

1)      Few chronic and serious diseases can be radically altered by the introduction of a new drug.  Instead, there tends to be a first-in-class innovator followed by a series of subsequent launches that offer incremental improvements. Being a little bit more efficacious, being a little bit safer, or hitting a new endpoint in a clinical trial are highly valuable improvements, but are not always linchpins for dynamic positioning.

2)      The ubiquitous positioning template that most pharma clients use can make it hard to focus.  Even when a brand team is committed to focusing on a single core differentiated benefit (CDB), we are too often caught loading the reason-to-believe (RTB) section with handfuls of secondary product  features and scores of emotional benefits.

Remember your first positioning workstream when you came up with empowerment, confidence, and liberation? They are great words, but they have been considered by every product launched in recent memory.

Can’t decide between efficacy and tolerability—why not check the thesaurus to see if there is a synonym for quality of life? (Hint: one doesn’t exist.)

But picking on the process is the easy part; coming up with dynamic positioning is more difficult. The good positioning checklist often wants to know if we are credible, sustainable, compelling, differentiating, etc. But we need more than that. For many of our oncology and specialty products, where differentiation has to be more than just your Kaplan-Meier curve, we are starting to challenge our clients to ask the following questions:

  • Is there a space “above the brand” where we can take a position? Instead of trying to meet an unmet need, is there a cultural trend that can be addressed by our brand’s best self?
    • We often look to our Ogilvy & Mather consumer clients for inspiration. How did IBM convert information overload into a smarter planet campaign? How did Dove transcend a cultural obsession with perfection into the campaign for real beauty? How did environmental awareness and activism change BP into Beyond Petroleum?
  • What can we do to change the rules?
    • Can your product be the advanced practitioner brand, the tele-medicine brand, or the unique offering that can help navigate the evolving environment of the accountable care organization?
    • Can you, gasp, ditch the template? Explore different “concepts” to show your positioning. Maybe prose, maybe some pictures, perhaps a video. If you are committed to testing your positioning concepts (and I say hats off to those who have the conviction NOT to test), give the respondent something interesting to noodle over.
  • Are you aligned?
    • Marketing may want to push clinical data that may or may not be superior to the competition, but are your investigators talking up your safety profile on the podium? If your primary customers balk when your reps present efficacy, are they going to retreat directly to the comfort of your AE profile? The position has to work for everybody.
  • Can you have fun doing it?
    • Take a chance, be crazy, challenge yourselves!

What do you find most nerve-wracking about positioning biopharma brands? I’d love to hear your war stories, and better yet, I would love to hear how you made it work!

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One Comment

  1. Wes Michael
    Posted April 19, 2013 at 7:44 am | Permalink

    Interesting ideas, Terrence. I especially like the challenge to position “above the brand.”