Milan Faces

Is Differentiation a Lost Art?

Pharma marketing can be a sea of sameness in which clever key messages, celebrity spokespeople and p-values do not compensate for poorly differentiated products. Do marketers and their external partners simply fail to understand their customers, or do they really believe that the science will sell itself? I concede that one major difficulty in differentiating an Rx brand is that the product itself fundamentally doesn’t change during its brief patent-protected life. Uses may expand, formulations may be tweaked, new data may be generated, and patient support programs may be created—but it’s the same chemical compound with the same properties it had on launch day.

And because the innovation cycle takes so long, several “me too” brands in the same therapeutic category are often developed and then launched within months of each other, further diluting a product’s unique position in a customer’s mind. Over time, the differentiation in some categories may have nothing to do with the medicines themselves, despite real differences in physical properties and product labeling. When I was a product director for ENBREL, there were eight biologic medicines approved by the FDA to treat moderate-to-severe rheumatoid arthritis. By the end of my tenure on the brand team, many prescribers routinely selected an RA treatment mainly on the basis of its copay assistance and patient support program, how quickly prior authorization was handled, and even how many rings it took for someone to pick up the phone at the pharma manufacturer’s call center.

Switching from rheumatology to respiratory, while attending a global medical congress in Milan, I captured the photo above. The first time I saw the wall it reminded me of the Hall of Faces in Game of Thrones, but after looking at it again I think it can be a metaphor for the overwhelming choices we face and voices we hear from advertisers demanding our attention. Many times when they do get our attention, they have nothing unique to say. They don’t tell us what makes their offering different, and why that difference makes it better.

After giving it a think, I came up with three actions to make ‘being different’ matter in the stories we tell about our brands and ourselves:

Be Different at Something that Matters to Customers

Many marketers spend a lot of money and effort highlighting differences that their customers don’t care about, or focus on a lower price as their key differentiator and head toward commoditization. In pharmaceuticals this often manifests by focusing on p-values instead of true clinical differentiation that doctors can observe in the patients they treat. Their personal experiences with a product today generally outweigh the published results of small clinical trials conducted ten years ago in some faraway country.

“I realized that my strength was being different.” — Betsey Johnson

Explain What Is Different & Why Different Is Better

Particularly in more scientific and technical fields, differences among competitive products may not be obvious. When I worked in the specialty chemicals industry, marketers used specification (spec) sheets as their main communication vehicle with customers. Fortunately the field sales engineers were experts at connecting the specs to real life benefits for customers, such as increasing the durability of acrylic-based paints in harsh environments. They included real world evidence of side-by-side competitive comparisons, in this case painted wooden boards that were exposed to the elements at ‘paint farms’ and monitored over several years.

Be Different in a Way that Can’t Be Easily Copied

The claim of being first in a category usually cannot be copied, however it is differentiating only if it matters to customers. Fast followers often learn from the mistakes made by the pioneers, and end up dominating a market. Many times if a product can’t be first in a category, a marketer tries to redefine the category and be first in that one, sometimes called a Blue Ocean strategy. The bottom line is that sooner or later a competitor will likely make your uniqueness obsolete, so be careful using “best-selling,” “most-preferred” or other situational adjectives that can be undone.

With each new wave of martech and other shiny objects, it’s easy to lose sight of the fundamentals. While investing in content marketing and social engagement is part of most marketing plans today, these investments cannot fix a product or service that doesn’t intentionally stand out from the crowd. Clear and sustained differentiation requires hard work throughout a product’s lifecycle, yet it creates a lasting foundation from which to build your business.

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