The B2C prescription: Marketing lessons for B2B pharma companies

Sales & Marketing
OTC and marketing

B2B is often seen to lag behind B2C in marketing, and nowhere is that more true than in the pharmaceuticals industry. Pharma isn’t exactly known for its creativity, and brand-building often takes a back seat in favour of traditional account-based marketing.

One reason for that is the industry’s complexity. B2B pharma covers the sale of prescription drugs and medicines that cannot be sold to consumers over-the-counter (OTC). Instead, they are sold to pharmacists, hospitals, or healthcare organisations like the NHS and prescribed to patients by a healthcare professional (HCP).

Meanwhile, advertising is highly restricted. In most countries, prescription medicines cannot be advertised directly to the general public; however, the US and New Zealand allow public broadcast of prescription medicine ads and, as a result, patients can request specific medicines from their HCP.

Nevertheless, pharma is now the second-biggest spender on advertising in the US, investing around $18bn a year. For brands, it’s critical to ensure they spend this money wisely.

Despite their differences, B2B pharmaceutical marketers can learn a great deal from their B2C counterparts.

Importance of brand

Often, pharmaceutical marketing teams focus on their product brands first. They use highly rational messaging in their advertising and focus on the product's functionality, especially when advertising to the businesses between them and the end patient.

The importance of the corporate brand that links these products is often forgotten. That brand is more than just a logo - it’s your company’s reputation. It’s what people remember about your business when a buying decision arises, and any product under that brand umbrella enjoys a nice halo effect from it. For example, it was the credibility of the corporate brand that made AstraZeneca’s COVID jab so compelling.

Ultimately, we are humans buying from humans. Emotional messaging resonates better than rational messaging, and strong brands come to mind first when anyone plans a purchase.

This is where pharmaceutical companies can learn from B2C giants like Coca-Cola and Disney. These companies have compelling and well-defined brands with strong emotional resonance, while their functional offering is unmistakable. If you were to stop anyone on the street and enquire what Disney does, they would likely respond without hesitation.

The pharmaceutical industry is increasingly waking up to this. In 2022, GSK rebranded in a bid to be seen as the “Tesla of pharma”. The company launched a new visual identity and a new brand purpose: to “unite science, talent and technology to get ahead of disease together”. Or, in the short version, “Ahead Together”.

Meanwhile, Pfizer has hired its first CMO - former Coca-Cola, Disney, and Best Buy marketer Drew Panayiotou. Speaking to Marketing Week, Panayiotou said he had been tasked with transforming Pfizer from a company where products aren’t connected to its brand into one where “brand matters”. He plans to crystalise Pfizer’s brand idea, “Accelerate Better”, believing that a strong brand is the best way to build trust with healthcare businesses and patients alike.

Embrace new channels

Before digital technology and the internet, all B2B firms were limited in how they could reach customers. For the most part, they only appeared where customers would be looking for them - small ads in the trade press, leaflets, or pop-ups at exhibitions and conventions, for example. It was no different in the pharmaceutical industry.

But now, firms can use data to pinpoint and target potential B2B customers across digital channels, just as B2C firms do. Some pharmaceutical brands are even experimenting with influencers, including a recent campaign from Gilead Science. Meanwhile, Kantar recorded a 208% jump in spending on podcast pharma ads in early 2023.

Of course, regulations are a vital consideration in the pharmaceutical industry, especially if using public channels. Targeting buyers with specific products might be unachievable for companies outside the US, but you can still reach them with your brand. Last year, Moderna launched a global TV campaign to tell its new brand story, adopting the platform ‘Welcome to the mRNAge’.

It's not just an opportunity; it's a necessity. As technology has levelled the playing field, so businesses can speak to just about anyone, a distinctive offering that stands out among the noise is critical for B2B firms. Held up against the rich creative backdrop of social media, online video, and TV, traditional sales-led, functional advertising feels dated.

Experience is the ultimate remedy

There’s also a great deal B2B brands can learn from consumer-facing brands about customer experience. As digital technology has evolved, consumers have come to expect a seamless experience across all touchpoints, whether buying clothes online or booking a holiday. If the process is clunky, they tend to go elsewhere.

A person’s expectations don’t change when they put on a suit and go to work. Whether we’re buying clothes or ordering medicines, we expect the brands we buy from to provide a clear, consistent, and functional experience.

While working on the Disney marketing team, Pfizer’s CMO Panayiotou learned a lot about the importance of providing a good customer experience. Healthcare providers might have a very different customer journey than a theme park guest, but Panayiotou argues that it’s just as important to optimise every touchpoint for the best possible experience.

“Doctors are overwhelmed by information, so they want it to be well delivered, just like a consumer,” he told Marketing Week.

As B2C experiences continue to improve, B2B brands need to keep up.

Stick to your prescription

It would be an enormous leap to suggest that every aspect of consumer marketing can be brought into the B2B pharmaceutical world. If GSK were to make a John Lewis-esque Christmas ad or an edgy campaign in the style of Nike, it would quite rightly raise a few eyebrows.

Outside of the US and New Zealand, where patients can request medicines, buyers of prescription drugs approach their decisions solely through a business lens. The buying cycle is long and involves extensive consideration, so buyers don’t make choices based on personal preference; they primarily seek value, reliability, and trustworthiness.

These are attributes B2B pharmaceutical companies need to communicate through their brands. Look at the Pfizer and GSK examples - both are crafting brands around words like “better”, “accelerate”, and “science”. Words that convey experience and inspire trust.

These qualities must be clearly articulated and easily comprehensible, and must help the audience to distinguish the brand from its competitors. All in all, that will be a real tonic for sales.

Josh Tilley
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Josh Tilley