A Prescription for Reinvention: The New Realities of Oncology Marketing

Tim Mitchell, EVP, Strategic Innovation, Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness

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A Prescription for Reinvention: The New Realities of Oncology Marketing

Oncology is a dynamic, cutting-edge field — one that requires marketers to remain agile as new developments emerge.

The public tends to conceive of “cancer” as a monolith, as a disease that, with time, we will cure all at once. But this notion couldn’t be farther from reality. In fact, roughly half of all cancers qualify as rare diseases — affecting fewer than 200,000 patients — and each variation demands its own therapeutic approach.

For pharmaceutical brands operating in the oncology arena, this diversity presents unique challenges that do not arise in the standard research, development, and marketing cycle. These companies are tasked with defining a singular and consistent value proposition that holds true not only across multiple tumor types and settings, but across multiple regimens and therapy lines as well. Often, the full set of approved indications and uses that will eventually define the clinical role of the product remains highly uncertain at the time of market entry.

Achieving this flexibility while maintaining a coherent brand identity can be difficult, especially within an ever-changing scientific field like oncology. Pharmaceutical brands must reinvent themselves as new scientific discoveries and realities emerge.

Prepare Patients to Be Engaged Partners

As research progresses and treatment options proliferate, many of today’s cancer patients have begun taking a more active role in their treatment journey. Gone are the days in which the patient’s role was to passively accept the advice and judgment of their oncologist; today’s patients have the unprecedented digital resources necessary to become educated about all of their options. With the latest medical news and insights widely available online, patients are empowered to monitor and engage with emerging treatments and therapies, as well as with other patients. But despite this digital democratization of information, we should not assume that all patients — especially those who for whom a diagnosis of cancer is recent — are fully prepared and ready to engage as an active partner in their own treatment journey.

In order to navigate this new dynamic, both oncologists and pharmaceutical marketers must reconsider their engagement strategies, looking beyond the product they’ve developed to ensure that patients are supported and ready to actively engage as decision-makers in determining their own treatment plan. To that end, emphasis should be placed on highly-individualized messaging that both informs and supports each patient within the context of their unique treatment journey.

Reclaim the Authoritative Voice

In many industries, the company who develops a product naturally becomes an authoritative voice on its benefits and utility. But given the strict nature of compliance today, regulations prevent pharmaceutical companies from executing pre-launch promotion and consumer engagement campaigns, meaning brands are often unable to contribute to the early conversations and perceptions of their new offerings. In the absence of contributions from the originating company, discussions on social media and other channels may be driven by alternative ‘voices of authority’ who are unconstrained in their ability to project a viewpoint.

Through credible post-launch engagement with HCPs and patients alike, pharmaceutical companies must seek to reacquire their authority as a bridge between patients and providers. Since brands are precluded from delivering advanced messaging, oncology marketers must provide authoritative content in order to become and stay relevant in conversations around treatment, both in the exam room and online.

Redefine Category Leadership

In the pharmaceutical industry at large, leadership is defined first and foremost by a brand’s speed to market — in other words, who introduces the product first? But in oncology, there is often space for more than one type of leader. For example, alternative leadership opportunities can be found in being the first to target (in other words, identifying a new biomarker) or the first to partner (by offering a new combination regimen, not just a new agent).

As cancer research develops, oncologists have a greater ability to experiment with different sequences and combinations of therapies. Modern cancer treatment involves a care continuum, sequence, and strategy, and by helping healthcare providers arrange these pieces in novel and effective ways, pharmaceutical companies can demonstrate a type of leadership that extends far beyond their achievement in bringing a new product to market.

Unlock the Power of Scientific Storytelling

In oncology, the value of a new medication encompasses not just its ability to safely and successfully kill the tumor without compromising quality of life, but in its ability to inspire hope and motivate patients to fight on. With so many advanced targeted and immune-therapies emerging, the challenge is not just to select a therapy grounded in scientific evidence, but to communicate the rationale for this recommendation in terms that patients can meaningfully relate to. For example, against a backdrop of traditional chemotherapies that are seen as unselective, toxic and sub-optimally effective, Avastin came to be understood not just as the agent that blocked vascular endothelial growth factor and tumor angiogenesis, but as an agent that instead “starves the tumor”.

Showing a patient what a course of treatment will mean to them in language they can understand is powerful, and doing so can go a long way toward ensuring they remain positively engaged in their own journey.

Even in scenarios in which there is ample scientific evidence to support the recommendation of a particular treatment, marketers owe both those products and their users a good story. That means using narratives rooted in tangible, real-world meaning to communicate potential outcomes to patients.

Combating cancer requires agility, courage, and innovation, and ultimately, oncology marketing requires the same. By considering and adapting to the shifting realities of a fast-paced, constantly evolving field of medicine, pharmaceutical marketers will not only position their brands for success and longevity, but create more meaningful, positive outcomes for the patients with whom they interact.

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