Less Trinkets, More PR in Pharma?

Have you heard?  Approximately 40 Pharma companies have agreed to a voluntary moratorium on the age-old practice of supplying branded trinkets to doctors.  While some may see this as nothing more than a cost-cutting measure turned stunt-I see it as a staggering admission that the tried and true methods of marketing are no longer effective. 

The Pharma industry more so than most is very much focused on old-guard marketing tactics.  From big-budget TV ads to full-page spreads in the Wall Street Journal, pharmaceutical companies have generally approached marketing as an exercise of bulk-hit as many eyeballs as possible.  For a number of reasons, most industries have been moving away from this model and looking to engage more directly with their customers.  Big pharma has been slow to respond to this trend.  By issuing this voluntary moratorium on leaving trinkets behind at doctors’ offices, pharma companies are acknowledging that this is a method of marketing that is simply not worth the spend.  You may wonder just how much a few pens and t-shirts cost these companies with seemingly endless bank accounts.  Glad you asked.  According to this article in the New York Times, the bill for this type of marketing initiative approached $6 billion last year.  Think about that-a bunch of competitive companies banded together and agreed to halt an activity that clearly was heavily invested across the industry.  This was no stunt; this was a clear acknowledgement that the marketing programs and dollars need to shift in another direction.

So where will the money go moving forward?  Pharma companies are now flush with cash to redirect to different, politically acceptable, methods to get their messages on products and disease states to doctors and patients.  PR is a logical vehicle that meets that description.  As the media landscape continues to change, PR agencies become an even more important cog in reaching not just the media, but other key stakeholders for a given company.  In an industry like pharmaceutical that has a mountain’s worth of mistrust built up, a more direct line of communication might be well received. 

In addition, the same NYT article states: “Diane Bieri, the executive vice president of Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, said the updated guidelines were not an admission that gifts could influence doctors’ prescribing habits. Instead, she said, they were meant to emphasize the educational nature of the relationship between industry and doctors.”  If the true goal is education, there are few better vehicles for that education than PR.  If pharma companies want to work toward restoring some of the trust that has been lost in the industry, it will need to do far more than stop the practice of handing out branded stress balls to doctors.  Instead, pharma companies should be now looking for ways to engage directly with doctors and patients in a transparent manner that inspires trust.  A well-planned and executed PR program can do just that.

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