Marketing Excellence

Pete West queries the concept of pharmaceutical marketing excellence in our marketing excellence themed month.

When I was asked to write an article on “marketing excellence” for this themed month for pharmaphorum my initial thoughts were that I would have many examples to share, given my time in the pharmaceutical industry and experience across a number of companies. Then, when I began to think about it, I began to doubt whether, in fact, the examples I was thinking of were real examples of marketing “excellence”, or something else?

Some of the first examples that came to mind were what I would call, “game-changing” events that completely redefined the market as we knew it.

When the late Sir James Black discovered cimetidine it changed the lives of millions and was fully deserving of the Nobel Prize for Medicine that he was awarded in 1988. The marketing example I was thinking of though was not cimetidine, but its major rival, ranitidine, from GSK, or Glaxo as it was known at the time.

“When the late Sir James Black discovered cimetidine it changed the lives of millions.”


I was fortunate enough to work for Glaxo during that period and I recall that ranitidine, being second to market after cimetidine, and being more expensive, was not expected by many outside of Glaxo, to usurp its rival.

For the second to market, quite often, the strategy would be to differentiate on points of minor difference that were at best ‘interesting’ but not sufficient by themselves to shift prescribing intentions. Yet, despite great similarities between these two compounds, Glaxo came in late with ranitidine, at a higher price, and ate cimetidine’s lunch!

This was one of the first examples I recall during my time in the industry and it sticks out because I do believe it was an outstanding example of marketing excellence. A few years later and the same company were at it again, in a different therapy area.

The migraine market in the UK was worth just £2 million when Glaxo introduced Sumatriptan in the early 1990’s. It was a market where the majority of sufferers self-treated with simple analgesia and many GP’s were unsympathetic, or even apathetic to the condition. In its first year Sumatriptan achieved sales of over £40 million in the UK. It redefined the market as we knew it. It picked the market up, and shook it and shaped it, like molding a piece of dough, into something that barely resembled what it had been before. I like that!

How Glaxo achieved these successes was not down to just one thing, but having a clear vision from the outset of what they wanted to achieve and a strategy that included preparing the market in advance, understanding both the customer and the consumer, and developing a compelling sales proposition and executing it flawlessly, were all major factors.

“How Glaxo achieved these successes was not down to just one thing, but having a clear vision from the outset of what they wanted to achieve…”

I have chosen the same company for these first two examples because these were genuinely the first two things that came to mind. I am sure there are many more examples worthy of a story to tell, but I want to try and focus now on what marketing excellence actually is, and what it isn’t. Let’s blow away a few myths first:

For a start, it isn’t just about “clinical utility”, i.e. how effective or safe a particular molecule may be. Whilst not doubting that this is important, there are many examples where products with equal or lesser clinical utility have done better than their superior rivals.

It also isn’t just about luck, or being in the right place at the right time. Chance may play a part, and chance is random, but planning is deliberate – and effective planning can overcome or at least minimize the impact of bad fortune.

It also isn’t about throwing loads of money at it. This may seem a strange assertion to make given the examples I have used, but whilst it is accepted that one needs to be capable of entering the race in the first place, it’s not how much is spent, but rather what it is spent on and how it is evaluated.

This brings me to a bit of a bone of contention with marketing in the pharmaceutical industry. For many years now I have thought that the industry has spent money, not knowing in any meaningful way, how effective that spend actually is. The reasons for this are threefold in my opinion:

1 The budgeting process

2 Previous experience

3 The lack of scientific evaluation of promotional spend

Anyone who has worked in the marketing department of a pharma company will know that the way the budgeting process often works is that the boss will come along and say, “you had X last year – we’re looking at X plus or minus 10% for next year – work around that”. And that’s because his boss has given him the same kind of direction. There is a lot of talk about “bottom up” planning, but at the end of the day there is only a finite pot of money to go around and people generally are not good at making a strong case for more.

I used to think marketing was a rather glamorous career and full of opportunities to do creative work. But the reality is that a lot of the time people are just repeating previous experiences. Which assumes the future will be like the past – which it won’t. There is not enough consideration given to doing something completely different. To “breaking the mold” as in the earlier examples I gave. This may be related, in no small way, to the culture of some companies. Culture is a pre-requisite to excellence in any discipline.

Despite the growth in popularity of measuring Return On Investment (ROI) in recent years, many models are still very basic, often using inappropriate mathematical models based on techniques like linear regression, which is fraught with error. The impact of one activity upon another is not well understood and only complicated further, perhaps, with the advent of digital marketing.


“Culture is a pre-requisite to excellence in any discipline.”


I am not in favour of having to justify ROI to the point of not being able to move! This is the other extreme of the spectrum – and if you end up there you will kill all hopes of innovation. But, if you are going to measure something – best do it right, or not at all.

Having said all these things, I also acknowledge that, despite being in an extremely competitive and difficult pharmaceutical market, there are still many very good examples of marketing to celebrate. The good news is, good people are everywhere and good companies know how to get the best from them. But marketing excellence is rarely the premise of any one person. It’s a team thing. And the “team” is not just the marketing team, it’s the cross-functional team. This is something that can easily be overlooked.

I also think that sometimes we confuse the terms “marketing excellence” with “marketing effectiveness”. “Excellence” to me suggests that it is something that cannot be bettered and I do struggle a bit with this concept. “Effectiveness” is about the impact of your resources on the market, which I think is a far more helpful assessment. So, I’m going to conclude on marketing “effectiveness” rather than “excellence”.

I think the following are critical things that lead to marketing effectiveness:

• Commercial input from an early stage of product development

• Co-ordination and Leadership of cross-functional teams

• Ambitious (but realistic) brand vision

• Customer and consumer insight to develop a compelling brand strategy

• Building advocacy

• Preparing the market

• Communicating effectively – internally and externally

• Effective implementation of plans

• Measuring what you do – in a meaningful way – and making adjustments

• Managing setbacks – for sure there will be some – but it’s how you manage them that count!

I think, in conclusion, that it is easy to talk about “marketing excellence” but sometimes I feel this is over-hyping the situation a bit. However, “marketing effectiveness” ought to be within the remit of every marketer – and who knows, “marketing excellence” may well follow!




About the author:

Pete West is founder and Managing Director of “Vox Marketing Limited” and Chief Executive Officer of a not-for-profit organization, “The Academy of Infection Management (AIM) Ltd”. He was previously Senior Marketing Director, at Wyeth Pharmaceuticals, with responsibility for Europe, Middle East, Africa and Canada from 2006 – 2010. His pharma industry background spans over 20 years and includes major pharma and small biotech in a number of senior commercial roles.

Pete has worked for a number of international pharma clients over the past 3 years, providing strategic and operational marketing support. He is currently working, on contract, as the Head of International Marketing for two pharma clients in Switzerland.

Pete is married and has two boys aged 15 and 12. He lives in Basel, Switzerland and Sheffield, UK, and reads Pharmaphorum everywhere he goes!

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How do you define marketing excellence?