Brand Health

The role of brand in achieving pharma launch excellence

Launching new drugs has always required superhuman efforts and coordination to be successful in such a fiercely competitive environment. As pipelines, politics and people’s expectations evolve in our technologically supercharged culture, we ask how brand thinking can deliver strategic advantage to create the life-changing blockbusters of the future.

By James March Category Director, Health and Wellness Conran Design Group

No stranger to controversy, the pharmaceutical industry perpetually occupies a very challenging space between life saving product provider and potent symbol of power and capitalism. As a result, it frequently finds itself in the political crosshairs, with now being no exception.

As the industry once again finds itself at the wrong end of a consumer perception survey (bringing up the rear behind oil and gas) ¹, one of the issues influencing opinion is pricing pressure. Primarily being driven out of the US, but having a global impact, the subject brings into focus the challenges of the drug development model itself.What do those challenges look like and how will the manufacturers and marketers of the future need to evolve and adapt to be successful?

Tip of the iceberg
The drug development process in pharma is amongst the most challenging, risky, time consuming and therefore costly of any industry. The shiny part that garners attention (ie between launch and patent expiry) and hopefully changes the lives of lots of people suffering from a disease or affliction is merely the tip of a very large and complex iceberg. Patents generally run between 8-12 years – during which time companies must recoup all the R&D costs and deliver profit. What many don’t see however, is that the drug development process leading up to launch is often equally as long and littered with the failures and the fallen who never made it.

‘Only about 30 percent of compounds that enter the market recover their risk-adjusted R&D cost – around half of products achieve less than 50 percent of the sales that were forecast a year before launch.’ ²

So, make no mistake – once that launch button is hit, the pressure is on to start maximising returns from the word go!

The funnel looks pretty full
As it stands today – between the top 50 pharma and the growing number of single product biotech companies – the R&D funnel overall looks pretty healthy. With over 16,000 drugs in varying stages of development (6% rise on 2018), competition continues to hot up as the molecular and biotech arms race rolls on.³ 

Of course, as alluded to above, many of these prospects will falter before launch.The drop between pre-clinical investigation and phase I is positively precipice-like. And the drop between phase II and III is still enough to make you a touch queasy, with the number of drugs reaching phase III having seen a drop since 2018 – suggesting breaking through this critical barrier is an increasing challenge.³

So at the risk of being a killjoy, whilst it’s seemingly great to have this burgeoning number of potentially life-changing drugs in the R&D funnel, unless companies get a healthy number of those prospects over the finishing line then this becomes an expensive academic exercise rather than a commercially successful one. Clearly there are other crucial influencing factors.

More eggs. Fewer baskets.
A significant change in the way pipelines have evolved over the years is the relative homogenisation of therapy areas – with oncology having emerged as the clear winner. The net is no longer cast as wide, as the advancements and innovations in cancer research have led to a flurry of opportunities to launch the next life-changing and commercially attractive oncology therapy. To illustrate the dominance of cancer as a focus – of the 16,000+ drugs currently under investigation, more than 5000 are in oncology. The other big players include gene therapy (864), biologics (818) and vaccines (702) but the numbers, although significant, are dwarfed by oncology.³

What this means for new launches
Whilst this ongoing trend is great news for oncology and a handful of other dominant therapeutic areas, what does it mean for those who are doing the launching? How will these products differentiate and succeed in an increasingly crowded and competitive collection of spaces?

Brand differentiation and trajectory
In pharma, looking at the launch phase in isolation is to consider only part of the story. To understand the critical nature of the launch and patent window, we need to see the whole picture.

Most product lifecycles look something like the diagram below. Whereas appreciating the launch task in pharma requires a view closer to that shown in figure³.  

Screenshot 2019-11-27 at 11.33.11

Given the investment required in the pre-launch stages and the relatively short patent window, the importance of achieving a successful launch becomes clearer. When you layer on the failure rate of other molecules to get to this point, the need is heightened further. And that’s where trajectory comes in – (for 85 percent of Pharmaceutical launches, the drug’s trajectory is set in the first six months)² . Roughly translated, this means pharma products better hit the ground running from launch or be prepared for a rough time.


Maximising opportunity
Influencing trajectory involves coordinating a number of strategies to achieve “launch excellence” including:

  • Market access
  • Market and audience understanding and knowledge
  • Market preparation through comms
  • Scientific engagement with key stakeholders
  • Organisational alignment and launch readiness
  • Strategically led brand development
  • Differentiating launch campaign
  • Effective launch sequencing

Effectively orchestrating these workstreams to a crescendo at launch and beyond is what minimises risk and maximises opportunity for success.

The biggest predictors of success are disease burden / need (is your product solving an identified problem?) and differentiation (how different is your product clinically?). 
If you have those on your side – you still need to push all the right buttons, know your markets and connect with your audience – but you certainly have an advantage. If you don’t have them, you need to leverage every single opportunity to emphasise points of difference and connect beyond the clinical.

Role of the brand
Amongst the list of influencing factors and workstreams are the strategically led brand development and launch campaign. They are not the same thing – creation and identity vs campaign – but they form a partnership in defining the brand positioning, crafting the proposition narrative and building the foundation of the brand from launch.

Given the fierce competition both to get to market and to demonstrate clinical difference in increasingly crowded therapy areas, leveraging the influential role of brand will become more and more important to achieve launch success.

And it’s not just the traditional “pharma factors” that should be considered here. We are in the midst of a cultural and technological shift in which our relationship with health is changing. With one in every three global searches being related to health, our wellbeing has become a dominant factor in our lives and everyone wants in on the action. Tim Cook (Apple CEO) was recently quoted as saying “Apple’s largest contribution to mankind will be in improving people’s health and wellbeing”.

With this influx of new players to health including big tech, our expectations as health consumers and the way we interact with the world around us is changing. We are demanding, we all have an opinion, our attention is a precious commodity and we give short shrift to anything which doesn’t meet our user-driven experience standards. The times they are a-changing and brands are moving from broadcast to conversation. From capture to care. Health brands increasingly need to align with this potent market-changing force.

Connecting with people
Despite all the advances in health, the average patient experience remains emotional and complex and is too frequently characterised by confusion and a fundamental lack of clarity. As a result, there are still real and tangible problems to solve for both patients and HCPs. Brands who are prepared to adopt a truly consumer focused mindset to connect with customers, can not only live up to their life changing potential, they can also deliver the strategic and commercial advantage they need to be successful.

To achieve launch excellence and deliver returns in an increasingly competitive world, the pharma brands of the future must be the embodiment of the attributes, intentions and potential of the product. But they are also going to need to be human as well as customer and patient-centric if they want to be heard above the market noise and engaged by a new breed of health consumer.

Screenshot 2019-11-22 at 12.58.32




For more information please contact:

James March
+44 (0)7802 296 203
Studio +44 (0)20 3196 8888


1. Gallup industry poll 2019

2. Beyond the storm – Launch excellence in the new normal – McKinsey

3. Pharma R&D Annual Review 2019 – Pharmaprojects

4. Paid Attention: Innovative advertising for a digital world (Faris Yakob 2015)

5. cmo-grad-conn-interview/