Does DTC marketing have a future?

Richard Meyer

World of DTC Marketing

“I want to believe in America’s pharmaceutical companies. I want to believe that people in these companies believe that the best strategy for success is to do what is best for patients. I want to believe that they are interested in scientific truth and eager to know of any safety issues and ready to share that information with the public. This week I was disappointed again.”

This is a quote from Dr. Harlan Krumholz in a recent article in Forbes1 and is a clear indication that both direct-to-consumer and healthcare marketing models used by big pharma are very broken.

According to Manhattan Research2 more people are going online for health information than ever before and who can blame them? With news stories around the safety of Avandia, patient litigation around Seroquel and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) now recommending treatment for asthma patients consumers are confused when it comes to healthcare issues.

Direct-to-consumer (DTC) marketing is especially broken as continued research indicates that mass-market channels are becoming less and less effective. Today marketing is about engagement but the drug industry does not have the resources or understand how to engage consumers when it comes to prescription drugs. Rather than take the initiative most are waiting on the sidelines for the FDA to issue guidelines on the use of social media by DTC marketers.

There is a bigger issue here when it comes to direct to consumer marketing of prescription drugs and that is trust. A recent Harris Poll3 indicated that Americans don’t trust drug industry advertising second only behind financial institution ads. You would never know this though as the drug industry continues to use outdated marketing programs to advertise its brands.

“DTC marketing is especially broken as continued research indicates that mass-market channels are becoming less and less effective.”

With the healthcare debate continuing to rage here in the US and the drug industry being asked to contribute another $20 billion on top of the $80 billion agreed upon in initial discussions one could argue that marketing is going to become a critical factor in driving demand for prescription drugs. In order for marketing to be relevant to consumers and health care professionals though it has to come from a credible source. Right now those credible sources are other consumers, health portals, insurance company portals and medical journals not drug company marketing.

Consumer packaged goods marketers are learning that their marketing has to evolve in order to meet empowered consumers needs and wants. Drug company marketers are in denial right now or hiding behind “we’re a regulated industry” at a time when really good breakthrough marketing is needed to prove its value to the organization. Some companies have established Twitter feeds but these tend to be more about public relations than giving patients the answers to issues that affect them. More and more drug company Facebook pages are starting to appear but again most are not leveraging the strength of Facebook, they are just using the channel as a new way to get in front as many people as possible.

At a pharma emarketing summit last month I was amazed at the same old insights that were being presented again and again. Anyone who thought of this as new information is surely living in denial. Marketers should know better and should always have a hand on the pulse of the market. It’s as though drug marketing has not changed in the last two to three years!

The problems of DTC marketing go deep to the roots of an organizational structure that has not changed with the times and still thinks that consumers are going to see an ad on TV and ask their physician for the product. Too often many drug companies revolve around a matrix organization where decisions are made based on what’s best for the “group” rather than the patient or consumer. Rather than embrace the way consumers are looking for health information, regulatory and legal people are blocking attempts to engage consumers and patients because they are not willing to take risks even when it means providing the patient with information that could help in healthcare choices.

There is no doubt that the drug industry is paying a high price for some very bad decisions made by people who were more interested in putting sales above patients health. That has led to an erosion of trust that can only be won back with transparency and a willingness to make key decisions based on what’s best for the patient. Mr. Merck said it best when he said “good medicine will lead to good business”. DTC marketers need to be reminded of what’s important again and that is definitely not six sigma or outdated marketing.


1. “Drug Companies Disappoint me again“, Commentary from Dr Harlan Krumholz, Forbes Magazine, Feb 25th, 2020

2. Manhattan Research, The Online Health Consumers, Manhattan Research January 2010 Press Release

3. Harris Polls, Feb 15, 2010: Advertising by Soft Drink Companies Seen as Most Trustworthy by One-Third of Americans, Financial Services Companies Seen as Least Trustworthy by Two in Five U.S. Adults

About the author:

Richard Meyer is a passionate DTC marketer who has worked within the industry for 10 years. He has an MBA from the New York Institute of Technology and has worked for Eli Lilly on the Cialis launch team as well as on Prozac, Prozac Weekly and Sarafem teams. During his career, he has worked with some very talented people and learned a great deal from them but has always believed that if you do what is best for the patient it will lead to good business. For enquiries he may be reached on

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