Learning How to Market Pharma From . . . Airlines?

It's not as strange as it sounds. If you dig a little deeper, there are a lot of similarities between the airline industry and pharma, and a lot of valuable marketing lessons to be learned, particularly about putting the customer at the center. Let's take a look:


  • Both industries are highly regulated.
  • Customers in both industries purchase based on factors besides service, or the attributes of the brand. Airline customers tend to purchase based on price, or timetables — period.
  • Neither is much of a discretionary purchase
  • And, given what's happened in the airline industry in the last several years, in both industries customer service is almost nonexistent.
  • Customer retention (in pharma, it's called "adherence")

While as a whole, the airline industry is, and has been, a smoking financial crater for some time, there are some exceptions — airlines such as Southwest, and Virgin. And in a fascinating, Podcasted interview posted recently in the Emergence Marketing blog, Virgin America's CMO, Porter Gale, offers some insights into Virgin's unorthodox — and very successful — marketing methololgy. And you know what the foundation of it all is — focusing on the customer, particularly their experience.

Airlines are not known, of course, for providing especially positive customer experiences. Quite the opposite, in fact. From the inception, however, Virgin America has been out to change that. And the absolute essence of their approach is to humanize the customer experience. This means minimizing the tendency of airlines to simply repeat the company line, regardless of the customer or the situation right in front of them.

Virgin combats this by encouraging employees to "tell their own story" — to talk to customers frankly and openly about their experiences, and to do whatever needs doing to improve that experience.

The comparisons are instructive, and the interview, albeit an hour long, is terrific. For too long, pharma has focused on the clinical benefits of its products — if a drug help you to get better, that's all that matters. Similarly, for too long, airlines have focused on the idea that if they get you and your baggage where you're going in one piece and relatively on time, they've done their jobs. In fact, the experience is vastly more complex, and pervasive than that, and has a lot to do with whether the customer will return, and what they'll communicate to others. Gale (and Virgin) understand this, and it's something pharma companies could learn about as well.

What does the elimination of doctor-level data mean? Add the patient.

We all know a number of states have recently been moving to restrict pharma/biotech usage of doctor/practice-level data to inform their detailing efforts. And the trend is accelerating — these data legislative handcuffs will only gain momentum.

Yes, this is unquestionably a bad thing for the traditional pharma sales force model. Other trends in this direction include doctors opting-out of pharma sales representative visits completely, as well as a recent study describing an increase of 5% year-over-year of doctors' not wanting detailing sales rep visits. As reported on Pharmalive, the core channel and delivery of marketing/science messaging is on a downward slope.  In this same study, 68% of physicians said they consider e-detailing as good as (if not better than) a face-to-face rep visit.


But while any restriction on having the sales data needed to drive a relevant conversation is bad news, there may be a silver lining here. This may be an opportunity to use this change to add another dimension to e-detailing that supports a better doctor/patient dialog.

Under this scenario, the sales model shifts. Or rather, from our perspective, the focus of the conversation and the influence it has on sales switches from the doctor alone, to  a more unified marketing approach that focuses on the doctor-patient conversation.

Imagine this: a type of e-detailing that, after the key delivery of clinical data, includes the patient, too. This approach would offer a patient video about their issues and challenges in diagnosis. It would be a combination of science and compassion.

This method redefines e-Detailing as a more well-rounded brand experience. After all, delivering clinical or marketing information handles the issue of recommendation. But that is only half the formula for success. The current approach does nothing to help what is the biggest weakness in the process — patient adoption. This is the crux of poor adherence and ergo the "leaky bucket" problem.

Having run a two-day conference on the reasons behind patient non-adherence (which over 20 different patient and HCP advocacy groups attended, representing over 30 conditions) we did a survey of what these important patient representatives believed were the key barriers to patient adherence. I am not going to reveal the complete list but number one on the list, based on the literature and survey data, was "patient non-acceptance."This, more than the clinical issues, is the real key to better outcomes.

Patient non-acceptance is just a different way of saying patient non-adoption of doctor recommendation. MINTEL states 56% of patients stop taking a medication due to fear of side effects — This is fear — otherwise known as False Evidence Appearing Real! This apprehension is not based in reality. Patients find excuses to stop following doctor's orders for reasons which are not grounded in fact, but in emotion — the raw material of the doctor-patient relationship, and something that's missing from a purely objective conversation. Clearly, the conversation between patient and doctor needs more than the doctor's clinical understanding of the treatment, and equally clearly, this isn't happening.

Non-acceptance could be addressed in e-detailing  – the patient video could be scripted in two ways. One would be a straight-on interview with key questions around the new diagnosis experience and doctor dialog. Believe me, this would be eye-opening for doctors who earnestly believe they are saying the right things and being heard. Second, you could offer a patient-focused short list of questions that help better prepare the patient — in other words, asses their level of acceptance of diagnosis and where their barriers to adoption lie.

Is anyone doing this now? I wonder.