Our thinking

Restoring Growth

Since mid-March, biopharma marketers have scrambled to balance the need to protect their employees, especially their field sales force, while maintaining some semblance of relevant share of voice in the market.

Across the country, sales reps were quickly pulled out of the field. Email communication to HCPs and patients was focused on empathy, not promotion.

Although HCPs and patients were quick to embrace telehealth, overall patient visits—in-office and online—dropped dramatically in March and April. In a survey by Sermo, 82 percent of physicians reported seeing fewer patients, throwing many practices into financial jeopardy.

Fewer patient visits today means fewer scripts written tomorrow.

How do biopharma sales and marketing succeed in this chaotic environment?

“The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence itself, but to act with yesterday’s logic.”

– Peter Drucker

For sales and marketing leadership, there are three key moves to building a recovery plan that anticipates tomorrow’s reality, not yesterday’s normal:

  1. Understand the new customer journey
  2. Invest in digital transformation
  3. Embrace agility


When social distancing directives began rolling across the nation in March, many patients canceled their appointments. With limited office access, annual physicals were postponed. Chronic disease deterioration, poor patient compliance and undiagnosed symptoms of non-COVID-19 patients—combined with the stress of unemployment and loss of health insurance—began creating a ticking time bomb of poor health.

As regions and cities begin to reopen, there will be a partial return to what was once conceived of as normal. In the recovery period, there will be a surge of pent-up appointments previously deemed non-essential.

Patients who deferred medical care for reasons of fear or cost will likely present with more complicated situations. Chronic conditions will be reevaluated, and the need to adjust medications, add new therapies or change treatment approaches will suddenly overwhelm practices that had just downsized to maintain their solvency.

The role of telehealth for routine follow-ups and refills will provide some relief to burdened offices. Telehealth calls will no longer be centered on panicked calls from patients with coronavirus symptoms. As life slowly returns to normal, online appointments will be booked for ordinary ailments and refill requests. Physicians will get comfortable starting patients on new therapies through telehealth systems.

Biopharma’s ability to support patients and physicians on this complex road to recovery will need to start with a full understanding of the new patient journey and respect for the evolving role of the HCP in a digital, on-demand world.

If brands want to rebuild their growth, they will need to meet their customers on their terms. Product content will need to exist in formats that are compatible with the digital channels and customized needs of the new customer journey.


A major economic crisis tends to exacerbate underlying deficiencies in strategy. Brands with growth issues before the downturn will be frustrated by the lack of bounce when the economy rebounds.

As brand leadership looks ahead to a rolling national reopening, it needs to question the relevance of its existing 2020 sales and marketing plan. Emerging from the COVID-19 lockdown represents both vulnerability and a great opportunity for restoring growth—with the right strategy.

The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated digital-health adoption among physicians and patients. Digital substitutions have altered how healthcare professionals acquire information and treat patients, and this will change how biopharma engages its customers.

Brand teams with a strong digital marketing foundation were able to quickly pivot to leveraging non-personal channels for direct access to healthcare professionals and patients. The response from healthcare professionals was immediate, with engagement numbers skyrocketing. Approximately 75 percent of doctors said they increased their use of digital resources, and 47 percent turned to online research to replace information they usually receive from field reps, according to a Healthcasts study of 361 physicians.

A strong field sales force has always been at the cornerstone of brand strategy. Yet in a world where non-essential visits to doctor’s offices and hospitals are discouraged, sales calls will become less impactful. Personalized non-personal promotion and online support services will become the primary mode of selling.

New data algorithms will identify high-potential non-writers and recommend promotional messages and digital channels for reaching them.

As patient visits become a hybrid of in-office and telehealth appointments and new algorithms are developed to support remote diagnosis, doctors will need easy access to online clinical resources.

Physician assistants who are using telehealth for new therapy onboarding and disease management coaching will need digital patient education, information on patient services and sample coupons that they can forward via the patient portal, preferably as the consultation is occurring.

Short disease and MOA explainer videos, diet and exercise e-brochures, how-to videos and links to online patient support groups will become essential elements for supporting the patient journey. While patients wait in a virtual waiting room for their doctor to see them online, they could be viewing custom videos or infographics or clicking on links to education information.

Committing now to a full commercial digital transformation journey will mean the difference between accelerating growth through the recovery and stalling behind the competitive curve.

These digital elements are all possible now. The difference is that they typically exist as stand-alone tactics and not as components of a comprehensive digital sales and marketing strategy.

Our experience is that a digital omnichannel approach to reach, frequency and engagement—using appropriate digital channels and customized content—can have a remarkable impact on growth at each step of the adoption path for both physicians and patients.

Advanced analytics will help brand teams identify the right HCPs and patients for their therapies, digital technologies will build personalized content around AI-enabled insight, and digital media will engage and support HCPs and patients with immediacy, convenience and relevance.

It won’t be long before brands with a sales force-centric strategy will be at a competitive disadvantage to those brands grounded in digital.


To rephrase a famous quote from Tolstoy, “Every happy brand is similar; every unhappy brand is unhappy in its own way.” While there are a variety of ways a brand can disappoint, most failures are the result of a growth strategy based on yesterday’s logic and not tomorrow’s reality.

Although we can’t anticipate exactly what tomorrow will bring, it will likely be a discontinuous break from what we have known to date. Past assumptions about how to launch and grow new therapies must be revisited.

In the post-COVID-19 world in which the physician-patient relationship will have greater reliance on digital tools and virtual communication, we must be nimble in how we use digital. We will need to use it to listen intently and communicate authentically.

To be relevant to HCPs and patients, brands will need to fully embrace digital, not as a set of adjunct tactics but as core strategy.

Committing now to a full commercial digital transformation journey will mean the difference between accelerating growth through the recovery and stalling behind the competitive curve.

Many physicians have struggled with telehealth, cobbling together technology workarounds. There is still a need for a comprehensive, HIPAA-compliant telehealth platform that automates appointment scheduling and insurance confirmation, supports video conferencing with the ability to share screens and tightly integrates with existing electronic medical records (EMRs).

A version of this article appeared in the May 2020 issue of MM&M.

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