From Push To Pull: The Reinvention Of Marketing

As customers turn away from traditional ‘push’ marketing channels, companies are using insights into their behavior to pull customers in, but performing the U-turn from push to pull has not been easy.



Pharma marketing used to be simple. A medicine arrived from R&D, you built the brand and developed brand-focused materials, then pushed it all out via the sales force. The customer was a nebulous figure, a member of the mass of doctors you met at a congress or company event, someone who greeted your reps with a smile and happily prescribed your products. If you wanted to tailor your approach to their individual needs, tough luck; there simply was no way of getting that close.

Times change. Now, marketers face a multi-stakeholder, multichannel, technology-enabled world where nearly anything is possible. Yet, just as pharma marketers glimpse an exciting future where they can get close to their customers and understand their needs, those needs change radically. Like all of us, pharma customers have questioned the value of the promotional messages being pushed at them.

“More and more people in pharma realize that something has to change,” says Josef Bednarik, Marketing Director Russian Federation/CIS/Israel and Business Unit Director Biomedicines and Oncology at Eli Lilly. “They see it in their own lives because they are customers too and they engage with communications in different ways.

“As pharma companies, we know we have to change, we know the direction of travel, but there is less understanding about how we’re going to do it. We don’t exactly know which communications and which touchpoints work better with a pull strategy and which work better with a push approach. It’s going very slowly as companies are still very reliant on the old model because it has been delivering results for years and everyone is used to it,” he says.

The shift from a “brand-focused” to a “customer-centric” communication is a core priority for Pfizer Essential Health Italy, says Nico Gariboldi, Head of Multichannel Communication of the Business Unit. “Our multichannel communication is entirely based on creating content tailored to customer needs and insights as our BU is mainly focused on Loss of Exclusivity (LOE) products. It’s a totally different way of approaching content. We strongly believe in a customer centric approach instead of a product focused one where contents are meant to engage and build a lasting relationship with the customer: ‘Before creating content, let’s pay attention to the insights that’s coming from our customers, and then, serve their needs’.”

A key part of the strategy is an omnichannel approach to the customer journey, says Gariboldi. "What is really interesting is that every channel requires a different approach to communication, so although the content might be similar, we have to adapt it to the format that best fits each channel.”

Yet, that journey is changing all the time, adds Bednarik. “In the past, customers were waiting for a rep or for an invitation to congress in order to learn about new developments. Now, they know everything before the symposium, they have all the abstracts before they take place, so the aim of these kinds of touchpoints are very different from ten years ago. For customers, such events are much more about networking and peer-to-peer conversations, about learning tips and having the opportunity to hear from someone with more experience. The world is changing but the good news is that the ‘pull’ channels are very naturally taking preference based on the different behavior of our customers.”

Although both Lilly and Pfizer are developing new channels to engage customers, neither is abandoning traditional ‘push’ channels. “Face-to-face is simply irreplaceable,” says Bednarik. “Some activities and some communication between customers and companies are much better done by living people in the same space at the same time than by any electronic channel. With physical contact, you get the welcome and the chair and have a much greater ability to influence the customer. With other channels, the decision about whether to engage is much more on the side of the customer.”

The use of customer insight to tailor marketing approaches has a natural endpoint – the segment of one. “A big evolution for Pfizer Essential Health Italy is to make our content differentiated by moving more towards personalization, ideally one-to-one communication,” says Gariboldi. “We must be customer data and customer insight driven. Before, the communication was the same for every customer, usually developed through market research and across long timelines. Now, it’s completely different; thanks to the technology, we can now have a deep insight into our customers and their preferences and, using analytics, we can provide the content that customers are searching for.”

However, true personalization is some way off, says Bednarik. “There are very few companies, if any in pharma, that have a system capable of personalizing messages, approach and communication based on the needs of an individual customer. I’m not sure that many even take into account the customer’s previous behaviors and tailor their communication to the needs of a segment based on that data. I still see pharma bombarding the customer and using a one-size-fits all approach.”

And yet the technology and capabilities exist, so why the lag? “The reasons are multi-faceted – one is resources, another is that some companies lack a global strategy of what they want to achieve. Thirdly, it is the CRM – it’s very rarely that see a CRM, especially in a small affiliate, that can support the level of customization you need to get a 360-degree view of all your activities down to the level of the individual customers,” says Lilly’s Bednarik.

A key challenge is cutting through the complexity and joining all the dots. “How do you make everything you’re doing into one coherent whole?” asks Bednarik. “Many companies have functions like Multichannel Marketers and Digital Communication Managers, but when you talk to people in other industries they would probably laugh, because what difference does it make? It is all marketing; as a company, we are doing one marketing and the channels we choose are a secondary step. We should not be treating digital as a completely different item; we need to make one coherent whole from all our individual activities, choosing the right ones for particular customers for the right tasks to be done.”

Pfizer Essential Health Italy has been working hard to integrate its marketing channels, says Gariboldi. “Another big area of work for me – and it is truly fundamental – is how we integrate our communications. We’re approaching customer communication as a negotiation – at the center, is our portal, our big platform, where we put all our content, but we are also developing content for the other channels – from face-to-face all the way to social media.”

You manage the complexity step by step, he adds. “First, you create the right team internally with capabilities that are not readily available at the moment, for example, a web master or an expert in social media, so you have to find the people with these capabilities. Secondly, you have to make your processes quicker – if you take a lot of time to approve a piece of content, you cannot be competitive in the digital space. Before, the competition for the physician was all in face to face, so all pharma companies were all in the same place, but we’re not alone now, many different companies are competing in what is now an open and public space.”

Change is always a challenge. “It is not easy changing direction and the greatest challenge is change management within the company,” says Gariboldi. “When your people are from a traditional marketing background and are used to working with push communications, it is important to realize that is can be tough when we’re completely changing our view and direction. It is crucial to ensure that people understand that we have to be very close to our customers and constantly revise our communication.”

In this new arena, speed is everything, says Bednarik. “In the past, companies developed one promotional material to cover all their discussions with customers, and it had a lifecycle of one or one-and-a-half years. Now, we need to constantly bombard them with new content that they will find appealing and valuable. If you are repeating the same material even twice, you will lose the customer in that channel – they won’t open the email or participate in the webinar."

Processes across the board need to be reviewed, he says. “To establish the structures and processes to enable fast content production, you need to go beyond the people that are directly involved in producing the content to the people who approve it, because approvals in the industry are more and more complex and everyone is much more vigilant. If you don’t do this, content delivery lead time will be so long that your materials will be outdated by the time they arrive.”

Despite the scale of the changes afoot, both Bednarik and Gariboldi see evolution not revolution ahead. “I don’t expect any huge breakthroughs, I expect the industry will muddle through,” says Bednarik. “Companies are moving forwards but they are taking a very cautious approach, and it is important to make sure that you don’t lose anything in the old channels and approach. I would be very surprised if we see a company that takes a very ambitious approach and matters change abruptly.”

The changes will continue because the new ‘pull’ approach is working, says Gariboldi. “We only launched our portal 10 months ago but we already have good traffic as well as local engagement – in the eyes of our customers we are the second portal in pharma,” he says. “I am certain we are moving in the right direction but I see a gradual evolution. I see improvements in the way we interact with customers, more co-creation of content with customers or some new tools coming out of the Internet of Things. While there are a lot of regulatory issues to address, I think we will talk a lot more about services, these are the next goals.”

Progress may well come from an unexpected source, says Bednarik. “Here in Russia, a classic emerging market, we are much quicker to adopt these kinds of approaches. You need to be innovative in these markets; for example, geography forces innovation – you can’t visit a customer regularly if you have to fly halfway across the country to see them, and you can’t expect a customer to fly to a peer-to-peer meetings or symposia. Some emerging markets are moving much more quickly.”


Josef Bednarik will be speaking at eyeforpharma Marketing and Customer Innovation Europe, 2-3 November. Find out who else will be speaking at eyeforpharma.com/marketing.


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