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What’s So Different About Consumer Pharma Marketing? Let Me Count the Ways ...

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I’ve been spending a lot of time in brainstorms lately with marketing pros who didn’t grow up marketing pharma products. We’re talkin’ burgers and fries, credit cards for college students, wireless phones and the like. They’re smart marketers that bring great digital expertise to Intouch from past lives and different industries. And we tend to discuss the differences in pharma marketing - the good, the bad, and the ugly.

So here’s my stab at a basic pro/con list on a rainy (and apparently tornadic!) Friday afternoon, also supported by an article I read in AdWeek today on a similar topic at


  1. We can feel good about what we do. Despite industry reputation and Vioxx-like news stories, for the most part we help people live longer, better, healthier lives. Think how far the industry has come in just the past 20 years. A happy statistic I read in the AdWeek article states: In a Kaiser/USA Today/Harvard survey, 63 percent of consumers said prescription drugs developed over the past 20 years have made their own lives and their family’s lives better, including 44 percent who said "a lot better."
  2. We have extremely engaged customers because we’re talking about their health, their family’s health, their quality of life, and sometimes a matter of life of death. While one would certainly not want to exploit this fact, you can’t argue they’re not paying attention.
  3. It’s a fact: our customers are actively seeking health information online. It’s the first place they go. So we make sure our clients are there. (I could support this fact with pretty charts and graphs, but if you’re reading my blog, you’ve seen them, so I’ll spare you.)
  4. In many cases, especially for chronic conditions, the lifetime value of a customer (patient) is high. Talk about an opportunity to build a customer relationship!
  5. It’s a challenge (um, see "Cons" below). And we have to be smart and creative to overcome those challenges. I, for one, find that exciting!


  1. Pharma marketers face severe, serious creative limitations. It’s easy to say pharma ads are boring and should be more creative. But in many cases, our ads can’t afford to be whimsical or stupid when dealing with serious diseases. And good creative doesn’t even guarantee sales. Though nasal allergies aren’t ’serious,’ the Nasonex bee has taken a beating, for example. Abe and the Beaver got a lot of attention, but Rozerem prescriptions sure didn’t.
  2. Consumers resent Big Pharma because they make profits off of their products.
  3. In some circumstances, our customers are being forced to be consumers of products they don’t want, or at least didn’t want to need.
  4. The above two points tie to dissatisfaction with pricing. Sure, life-saving products have value. But the fact that they are life-saving or life-enhancing leads consumers to believe they should somehow be free -- never mind the R&D costs.
  5. No matter how great our strategy or creative, there are still lots of barriers to a customer making a "purchase" that are out of our control. The patient must be diagnosed. They must see our ad. They must be the right patient for the medication. They must get a prescription. They must fill said prescription. They must take said presciption as directed for the best possible get the the picture. It’s a different process from picking up a box of Crest off the shelf at Walgreen’s or choosing Sonic over McDonald’s.
  6. Regulatory restrictions limit "positive message" space, limit what we can say, garble the message, and overall drive overly risk-averse decision making. No other industry says it’s the law that you must spend X amount of advertising time/space on the "bad" features of your product (e.g., side effects). Not that I don’t disagree that we have a responsiblity to represent our products in a fair and balanced manner. But it does pose challenges to the online marketer (ever tried to fit fair balance in a Google search ad? No go.)
  7. The legal, medical, and regulatory environment severely limits a marketer’s ability to react fast to situations, to customize messages, and to have open conversations with patients.
  8. Due to patient confidentiality laws, niched patient populations (a small "n"), and the barriers outlined in #5 above, it is very difficult to directly track ROI (though John Mack may disagree :-)

Is there any other industry that poses such challenges? If so, let’s lament together - would love to hear your point of view. I am thinking medical devices and animal health are fairly parallel.

I was honestly hoping to end up with more Pros than Cons when I started this list, but so be it. I am sure there are both pros and cons that I missed. Interested in your thoughts. Thanks!


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