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Home | Problems With Positioning Pharmaceutical Products

 Sunday, July 27, 2008



It’s no secret that we at Brand Development Network International work in many sectors and in many parts of the world. One of these sectors is Pharma, namely BIG Pharma (i.e., the pharmaceutical industry). Our learning in the pharmaceutical sector is broad and deep. However, while invaluable, it’s not always pretty. We learn not only from what they do correctly but what they do incorrectly as well. The need for BIG Pharma to be more competitive has never been greater than in the current global, and local, market environment. But, actually, these companies and their brands are going in the opposite direction. BIG Pharma is becoming less competitive in its positioning practices.


If you are a marketer from another sector please don’t delete this DISPATCHES until you’ve read what we have to say. Because, what we learn from working in one sector benefits the work we do for clients in other sectors such as FMCG (Fast Moving Consumer Goods), skin care, medical, financial, food and beverage, etc. And, what we learn from our work in a given geographical area helps our clients in other geographies. Chances are that you too are facing a growing need to be more competitive. (Like who doesn’t in this difficult economic environment?) Yet, it’s highly likely that you may be dealing with these same less than competitive practices in the positioning of your brand too. So read on!


We define brand positioning as how we want target customers to perceive, think and feel about our “brand” relative to competition. This word “brand” is very important. It is about much more than the product, which is nothing more than physical attributes. Instead a brand encompasses a constellation of values that forge a special relationship with the target. It is also important that target customers perceive our brand as different than the competition, minimally in degree, but optimally in kind. And, the difference must be relevant to the target and meaningful versus competition.


But if you look at how pharmaceutical companies are positioning their offerings you will find an absence of relevant and meaningful differentiation. In other words what you would find is a “sameness” that contributes to commoditizing entire categories. As a result, products aren’t making their business goals, more new entries face failure (minimally versus overly inflated expectations) and, at the very least, companies are experiencing opportunity losses even as they rev-up their sales efforts. What’s going on here? Unfortunately there is not just one practice but many that contribute to this positioning problem. Here are some significant ones:

  1. Focus on the compound not the brand – When you consider a given pharmaceutical category such as PPIs (Proton Pump Inhibitors), which work to turn-off acid producing pumps to prevent GERD (let’s just refer to it as severe, chronic heartburn – the kind that keeps people up at night when they are supposed to be sleeping), you’ll note that all the compounds work the same. They have the same mode of action and basically the same results. In other words each of the PPI products are interchangeable or at least largely perceived that way among the vast majority of physicians. It really doesn’t matter which one is prescribed. (We know you are going to argue this point but for crying out loud show us the data!!!!!) By the way, this isn’t a whole lot different if we are talking about different colas (in the soft drink category), or credit cards, or bare metal stents, or banks, or just about any physical entity. They are constituted with the same basic materials, work in the same way to do the same thing and on and on and on.

So, with the focus on the compound, or physical product entity, how is one going to create relevant and meaningful differentiation? The answer is you’re not!

  1. The need for consensus – Oh, this is getting ugly particularly if you are doing “global” positioning. (And, who in BIG Pharma is not doing “global” positioning these days?) You see managers from various geographies who participate in creating the positioning find it difficult to agree on what is important. Understandably, each will vie for what s/he believes works best for her/his geographical market. In fact, it is difficult enough to get two countries to see eye-to-eye (i.e., agree) in the EU on a given positioning no less than to try to get two countries from different geographical regions (such as Europe and Asia) to agree. So whatever small differences might exist versus competitive products gets watered down. The end result is a diluted positioning that lacks compelling meaning to the target customer.
  1. Regulatory and legal dictums – Oh, this is getting even more ugly now. Bet we are going to get in trouble for even suggesting this. But it’s the truth. The regulatory and legal role is growing in importance. And, it is keeping marketers from being truly competitive. Now we are not blaming your company’s regulatory and legal personnel. They are doing what they are supposed to be doing. And, at least, they are being aggressive in fulfilling their role of keeping us marketers, and our organizations, from getting into trouble with the FDA, etc. However, they are not serving to keep us marketers nor our organizations out of trouble from failing to meet our forecast, or successfully compete in the marketplace. Instead they are contributing to it and we are helping them.

How might we be helping them hinder our marketing efforts? Well, if we go back to factor number 1, focus on the compound, they will only allow us to make claims consistent with what the compound does, consistent with clinical studies and resultant labeling. That’s it and nothing more. Remember what we said earlier about the compound? It’s basically the same as every other compound in the same class of drug. So how can we possibly expect them (our regulatory affairs and legal personnel) to give their approval to competitive claims of differentiation that are not supportable. It would be insane.


On the other hand, they do not understand brand positioning and, therefore, what you are doing and how you are going to use it. To the regulatory and legal people product and brand are interchangeable just as we marketers might think that a tort and tart are too. (Okay so we are exaggerating about that last part but you get the picture.) And, to them positioning is what we say (i.e., specific claims about the product), not about the relationship we want to create with the customer. Nor do they appreciate that the brand positioning strategy is a blueprint for the future brand that you hope to build. It is a guide for all future activities that we need to engage in internally in order to realize the full potential of our offering in the marketplace. Unless we understand these crucial differences and help them understand it too we are doomed to sameness.

  1. Reliance on faulty quantitative marketing research studies - Hey we are not trying to point the finger at marketing research. Like the regulatory and legal folks there are many true professionals in this field who are eager to help us establish success with new and existing products. But often times the materials (e.g., white card positioning concept) that are tested with customers are indistinguishable from one and the other. Or, we rush to quantitative studies before we know what questions to ask or even know what we should share with respondents. Or, we fail to appreciate that something that is very different may not immediately have appeal because it is, well, different from conventional expectations. Or we do not read the results from our target population segment because we have not made the sacrifice to choose a segment for whom our proposition will have real meaning. Or we just ask the wrong questions and, therefore, make decisions on the wrong responses such as “do you like this?” (Who cares if your customer likes it? That is not a relevant question. Instead, we should be asking whether they understand what is the benefit to them? Is that benefit important to them? Is it meaningfully differentiated from competition? What is their likelihood of prescribing or using?)

Also, we’ve observed a lot of esoteric maps drawn-up by consultants, or from marketing research, of where various products fit within a category. To be blunt, we just don’t get them. They try to make something out of nothing. In other words, it just isn’t real. And, if it could be made real (which is another story, one we could embrace) the likelihood of successful execution is slim. Sorry about that folks. Read on!


5. Sameness in execution – Sameness in execution negates any differentiation that you may have in the positioning strategy. There are three ways in which pharmaceutical marketers contribute to a sameness in execution. The first is that the same message is communicated for all, or many, of the products in the same category. You know them! Everyone claims the product is “efficacious, safe and tolerable.” Sound familiar? Of course it sounds familiar. This is probably what you are communicating for your product offering. But it doesn’t really say anything does it? What does efficacious mean? (Oh we know what the word means. We just don’t know what it means for your product. Does efficacious refer to product speed of relief, quality or completeness of relief, duration of relief, WHAT?) And when many of the products are communicating the same claim then guess what? They all sound like they work the same! Where is your difference?


A second way that sameness in execution perpetuates a sameness in positioning is that pharmaceutical marketers use the same marketing mix elements to reach and attract customers. What do they use? They use: the sales force; KOLS (Key Opinion Leaders); Medical Congresses or Conventions; CME (Continuing Medical Education), etc. It is like they get into a grove but this is more like a rut.


Finally, the sales force is armed with viz-aids that have reams of meaningless data and pseudo-claims. We say meaningless in that it is about features and attributes, typically generic in nature, for which no meaning (or context) is established for the customer. Pharma companies leave it to their sales personnel to lift something out of the viz-aid that just might sell the customer. This something may not be consistent with the brand positioning. It is a copy point versus a strategic message. While one sales person may stress one copy point with a given customer a competitive salesperson will stress a counter copy point. This just contributes to that sense of sameness pervading each category. We’re surprised medical professionals have time to listen to this. Instead, sales messages need to be tailored that are consistent with the positioning AND with the behavior objective for the different customers (i.e., behavior types) within the target segment. (More on this in a future DISPATCHES article.) In this way the positioning is seeded while we motivate a desired behavior to make the sale.


Here are some thoughts on ways BIG Pharma marketers and, for that matter, all marketers can develop more competitive positioning strategies:

  1. Position the brand not the product - Think about how you would like to be perceived beyond product attributes and performance. Think about the meaning or relationship you would like to establish with target customers. This will require you to identify a segment of the population that you want to better serve than your competition. It will also require that you look to the long term in directing the company’s resources to building a special relationship with the identified target.
  1. Diverge before you converge – Seek alternate strategic options. Encourage new thinking. Avoid the herd effect of converging prematurely. Play out your options. Give them a chance to breathe. Allow them to suggest yet other alternatives. Then when you have identified the obvious and not so obvious (and maybe even the unique) apply appropriate criteria to narrow your choices prior to engaging in any quantitative research. (By the way, one of the ways you may choose to narrow choices may be through the use of qualitative research.)
  1. Think global but act local – This is related to the previous point. The “brand” meaning or relationship you look to establish can be global while the actual “product” performance factor or support should be local. If we are going to debate performance factor or feature importance on a market-by-market situation there is little likelihood that an agreement will be reached that will satisfy all markets, no less provide the basis for a competitive, ownable and enduring brand positioning strategy. It is not only the wrong place to start (see point #1) but it will force arbitrary consensus that will underscore the very thing we do not want to do – perpetuate sameness. Somebody, please somebody, make the decision on a global brand positioning and let the local markets make the decision on what aspect of the product is to be stressed.
  1. Get regulatory and legal people involved early – We know this may sound crazy but you may find it helpful to encourage your regulatory and legal people to get involved in the actual positioning process and work sessions. Virtually everyone things s/he knows how to do marketing. (If you doubt us ask your neighbor or, what’s even more scary, your product research and development manager.) So, your invitation may be welcomed. They will learn that there is more to marketing than they know. Additionally, they will begin to appreciate the role of positioning and what you hope to achieve. Finally, you will get them problem solving as opposed to merely acting as a watchdog whose role is to keep you from destroying the reputation of the company and getting them fired.

  2. Get on track with marketing research – We can no more run our brands on polls than we can run our nations on them. That is what much of research has become – polling to determine “pass” or “fail.” Let’s see what we can learn to help us develop strategically appropriate, competitive brand positioning strategies. Let’s use research, or (better yet) customer intelligence, to engage in a dialogue with customers that will enable us to learn, adapt and iterate our way to success. And let us not abdicate our responsibility to marketing research for decisions that only we can make. While we are at it we will need to clearly spell-out our objectives, identify our target customer segment, develop a meaningful design, use appropriate materials to encourage sound feedback, and discover what is behind customers’ claimed interest levels in our positioning.
  1. Dare to be different – Drive your relevant, meaningful differentiation home through the employment of different vehicles and tactics. Avoid overly relying on anything that makes you look the same as your competitors. Above all do not the make the same claims as your competitors unless you have the muscle (i.e., feet on the street, financial resources, etc.) to put them down in a costly battle of attrition.

  2. Create meaningful sales messaging – Remember to develop specific sales messages that reflect the brand positioning strategy but are designed to achieve specific behaviors from the different behavior types within the same target segment.

Richard Czerniawski & Mike Maloney

Richard Czerniawski

430 Abbotsford Road

Kenilworth, Illinois 60043

tel 847.256.8820 fax 847.256.8847

reply to Richard: or



Mike Maloney

1506 West 13th

Austin, Texas 78703

tel 512.236.0971 fax 512.236.0972

reply to Mike: or

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