Managing competition in the oncology space

Maie Gall

Matems Consulting Ltd.

The number of new molecules entering the oncology market is rapidly increasing, creating much greater need for companies to create the right strategy and really understand their position with respect to the competition. This is essential not only for market penetration and sales, but also for the very survival of the companies that focus on this space. Many big companies assume that their size will protect them from the intense competition inherent in the cancer space, sometimes leading to sub-optimal competition management strategies. Smaller companies and new entrants tend to be better at realizing the need to manage the competition as early in development as possible in order to ensure that their significant investment in, both time and money, pays off with healthy sales later on.

However, the act of defining competition is something that varies depending on the style and size of the company. For companies with a long history in oncology who perceive themselves to be established, their focus is often on the amount of data and trials that they have running at a particular time in the market. They assume that they are managing the competition by either having many patients on one of their products or at least enrolled in one of a number of large trials. In fairness, this strategy has worked well in the past and proved very successful. The challenge they now face is that as the market becomes more competitive, with more new entrants and larger companies manoeuvring into this space with significant investment, this approach no longer works. One could also argue that it is not actually a competition management strategy, but more of a blocking strategy to make it harder for others to enter a specific indication. For smaller companies this strategy cannot work as they simply do not have the financial clout to fund such extensive trials and are therefore forced to define a clear, clean, targeted competition management strategy in order to succeed.

What is competition management?

If one is to analyze what a competition management strategy is, one would quickly see it is based on the very old strategy of controlling your “enemy”. Over 2,000 years ago, the master military strategist Sun Tzu wrote on how to optimally manage your “enemy” based on different war tactics. These tactics are still very applicable and relevant today, with much application to the world of business. His main concept was that in order to manage anyone or any situation you need to “know” your opponent, not how they want you to know them but how they really are. As a result, many companies spend a significant amount of time and money projecting an image that is only focused on acting as a decoy to their competition. This strategy extends to PR, congresses and many other activities. Although it is effective in distracting the competition, companies have to make sure that they do not lose their prescribers in the process, as they are the ones that actually need to have the “right” image and perception in order to create the trust needed to prescribe your product.


“…many companies have, through their own actions, destroyed a product through bad trial design, bad marketing and / or bad competitive management.”

Another core method that is very often mentioned by Sun Tzu is the art of allowing your competition to kill itself. In essence, this is knowing when to enter into a competitive situation and when to rise above it, presenting the opportunity for your competitor to fail all by themselves. Although this might seem an unlikely approach, in the recent past many companies have, through their own actions, destroyed a product through bad trial design, bad marketing and / or bad competitive management. Most of them made the same mistakes, which was underestimating prescriber loyalty and a lack of strong competition management strategy, leaving their competitors to sit back and watch them fail.

Implementation is key

Many marketers in the oncology world spend significant amounts of money on war games and competitive workshops to determine who the competition is and how best to manage them. These exercises very often lead to the conclusion that their own products are the best and that the competition is not as good! This is all very well if true, but when done correctly these exercises should identify the gaps between the positioning of a competitor product and the reality of the market, i.e. identify the opportunity space. If this is done well, the marketer can walk away not only understanding their competition but also with the beginnings of a strategy to manage them. Unfortunately, too often the results of these workshops are just large binders filled with a mass of information that is rarely even reviewed, never mind acted upon. Therefore, it is critical that all competitive analysis leads directly to operational tools that can be implemented in the field, without this step this knowledge will not translate into action and results. The key point is that any internal strategy is only beneficial if it is implemented externally through channels such as the sales force, medical liaison and other activities allowing engagement with prescribers and payers.

To turn this on its head, we must always remind ourselves that knowledge is only good if it can be used in the field, otherwise it can never be of benefit to the product. As Sun Tzu said, “all competitive advantage is based on effective execution of plans”.


“…it is critical that all competitive analysis leads directly to operational tools that can be implemented in the field…”


Keep it simple

Another common mistake is to focus on overly elaborate approaches to competition management strategies. The company then attempts to integrate these complex strategies into its congress presence and PR outreach, leading to two issues. Firstly, such complex strategies often appear very “promotional” potentially moving away from the core benefits of the product. Secondly, even if a complex strategy is, in theory, a good one it is important to remember that the prescriber is being bombarded by many different finely tuned approaches from multiple companies relating to many brands. As a result, the sheer volume of information presented to them at congresses means the more simple messages are likely to stand out from the crowd, with complex differentiation approaches running the risk of being lost in the noise. Remember, the prescriber is not just thinking about your drug in isolation – they are comparing it to other products, considering mono or combination therapy approaches, which patient types are right, which formulation, and so on. Their minds are busy places!

The point I am making here is to remember that ‘focus is key’. Sun Tzu claims that “direct attacks generate emotion, which significantly hinders wise reasoning”. So a very clear, direct message also gives one the opportunity to manage the market while the competition is struggling to put together a counter-attack strategy.

My recommendation for competitive management strategy is to focus on one or two points per competitor and to integrate that into your commercialization strategy using very simple tools. The guidelines are clear on how best to use these kinds of tools, but we need to ensure they are based on the prescriber’s need for clear differentiation and positioning, not on our need to manage the competition. At the core of it all, each prescriber has one main need, which is ascertaining what the clinical benefit of product X is versus others on the market. If the marketer can focus on narrowing this down to one major benefit per product, it makes it much easier for the prescriber to see this in the forest of other products and to make the right choice. Simplicity in “attack”, as highlighted by Sun Tzu in The Art of War, has been the most effective strategy for over 2,000 years.


“…simple messages are likely to stand out from the crowd, with complex differentiation approaches running the risk of being lost in the noise.”



It is essential to take the competition seriously. We must, of course, assume that their development products are good enough to make it to market, but be wary of dismissing a product as uncompetitive on clinical attributes alone. Those of us who have worked in the pharma industry for a while will also recognise that it is not only the clinical value of a product that determines its success but also the financial and strategic power of the marketing approach.

As a result, it is essential to have clever, focused and timely competition management strategies that have a short-, medium- and long-term component to them. Only through this can we ensure that we will have not only a successful launch but also be assured of always staying one step ahead of the competition. Such actions keep the competition in a reactionary stance, placing you in the leading role. The “best” enemy is one that you do not have to defend yourself against, but who is perpetually in a reactionary mode, allowing you to maintain leadership and control the market.

About the author:

Maie Gall is a commercial strategy expert at Matems Consulting, a specialized consulting company focusing on haematology, oncology, rheumatology and diabetes. With offices in the US, Europe and the Middle East, they offer a broad service offering for these indications from Phase I to post patent expiry strategy as well as tactical implementation. Combined, they have more than 75 years of industry experience at large pharmaceutical companies in local, regional and global functions. For more information including the CVs of the partners, please visit their website at or contact Maie at, telephone +41 79 788 6523.

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