Andrew Tolve explores how Japanese pharma firms are using direct-to-consumer (DTC) marketing campaigns to share health information and create brand awareness
Like most places in the world, direct-to-consumer (DTC) marketing in Japan comes with a major catch: Companies can’t name their own brands in consumer-facing advertisements for prescription drugs.
Starting in 2011, there have been murmurs that, with a push from the Government Revitalization Unit, the Japanese government would soon relax its regulations and permit pharma companies to start using brand names in DTC advertisements. As of 2012, however, there has been no change to the Pharmaceutical Affairs Act and no sign that a shift in regulation is pending.
Nonetheless, opportunities on the DTC front still exist in Japan. By law, pharma companies can’t name their own brands, but they can run disease awareness and “help-seeking” campaigns that aim to expand consumer knowledge of a condition and lead them toward doctor consultations.
Given the size of Japan’s elderly demographic—nearly 20 percent of the population is older than 65, and citizens 75 or older account for upward of 30 percent of drug consumption in the country—there’s increasing interest in personal health information and disease awareness. Moreover, there’s a growing prevalence of major disease and disorders such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, hypertension, diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and cancer. Building awareness around these diseases through DTC campaigns is therefore an opportunity.
“In order to aspire toward a healthier society, we must also aspire toward a society that has a better understanding of health in general,” says Glen Sunohara, operating officer and head of product marketing at Boehringer-Ingelheim. For that, society needs “a better understanding of disease, the consequences of disease, and their role as a patient in maintaining health”—all of which well designed DTC marketing can drive. (For more on the Japanese pharma market, see Dr. Bates’ Talkback: Is Japan the new re-emerging pharma market?.)
Building disease awareness and understanding by way of a DTC campaign involves more than simply distributing facts about a disease. To actually expand patient awareness and overall engagement in treatment, a company must understand what patients already know, what they fear, what they want, and what they need—in short, companies must comprehend the full consumer experience of patients in Japan.
To do that, they have to listen to patients, which has never been pharma’s forte, in Japan or elsewhere. The industry is much more adept at listening to physicians by way of focus groups, surveys, and feedback from sales reps, and then engaging physician communities with the knowledge learned from these feedback loops. The rise of Web 2.0 and social media has given birth to a wealth of conversation and organic knowledge sharing among physicians. (For more on Web 2.0, see Special report: Pharma and social media.)
Many companies are already taking advantage of the client insights now available online and have established processes in place for culling valuable insights from online communities. That process generally includes first identifying the online communities (some are based on medical schools attended, others on specialty, physical location, etc.), then determining how these communities interact, what unmet needs exist within the community, and finally how to work with the community on programs and solutions.
All of which is great for building successful marketing campaigns that target physicians. But as for listening to patients with the same structured approach to build successful DTC campaigns, the structure for collecting insights is less defined. “Pharma in Japan is far more advanced in understanding and engaging physician communities than patient communities,” Sunohara concedes.
Listening to patients
With the emergence of patient groups online, pharma has a vast resource of insights that it can use to hone DTC campaigns. Granted, regulations limit what pharma companies can say to patients, but that shouldn’t deter them from segmenting patient groups, exploring their conversations, and understanding where gaps exist in information.
“By understanding the current communities where patients and customers interact, we can gain a better understanding of what they are talking about, what are the issues and challenges that they are facing, and in general what needs they have,” says Sunohara.
General social media monitoring is a good place to start, and setting up online focus groups with a moderator is another opportunity. “It is important to use the chance to listen to patients directly and understand how a product can become part of patients’ lives,” says Yoshimi Harada, a director of the Champix team in Pfizer’s Primary Care Marketing department in Japan.
With a better understanding of the technologies patients are currently using and the ongoing communication within their communities, pharma can better position itself to help bring communities together and help provide solutions for unmet needs.
Through this process, marketing teams should be seeking out deep actionable insights that can be leveraged to activate consumers and launch creative DTC campaigns. “We have to make it clear that our aim is to increase disease awareness,” continues Harada, and “it’s important to emphasize listening directly to patients as a means of achieving this.”
Once companies have listened to communities and identified wants and needs, the question is how best to act upon them. Certainly companies can shape their messaging around the language they hear patients using online. Companies can also look to TV, radio, print ads, and the burgeoning field of consumer-centric websites.
The last of these is the newest terrain and provides an effective forum to build patient needs into DTC campaigns. Though brand images and allusions are prohibited, consumer-centric websites can display companies’ names, which in turn can create positive associations among patients.
For example, Eisai Co, the fifth-largest pharma company in Japan, has created a consumer-centric website that aims to increase awareness of diseases like dementia and osteoporosis. The website is built around a fictional person rooted in patient research. Eisai found that caretakers are doing much of the research into diseases and treatment options, so they made the website’s main character a mother who wants to take the best possible care of her aging parents. The woman is featured heavily throughout, and the website also includes a “Wellness Finder” to further disseminate information.
Likewise, Pfizer has created the website sugu-kinen.com, which aims to raise awareness ofnicotine dependence to promote quitting smoking, but also plays an important role in Pfizer’s marketing.
Harada cautions that, as with all DTC activities, it’s important to examine online initiatives from various angles to gain the highest ROI possible. “Orthodox advertising on TV and in newspapers incurs tremendous costs and so will be expected to make large returns,” she says. In the case of Pfizer’s DTC campaigns for disease awareness, the company has been using the number of people who understand the disease in question as an indicator. “We are constantly trying to improve by being more creative and mixing the channels of media we use,” Harada says.
For more all the latest on pharma marketing in Japan, join the sector's other key players at Marketing Excellence Japan 2012 on May 15-16 in Tokyo.
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