How Pharma Can Do More Than Worry About Patents

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by Krissy Goelz (@krisgoelz)

How do you market the new hotness when it is neither new nor hot anymore?

Its a pressing issue for pharmaceutical companies, which have become increasingly dependent on blockbuster drugs (the equivalent of tentpole movies in the film industry) for long-term financial performance and market share.

But in a world bound by patents and intellectual-property law, even the blockbuster drug most crucial to a pharmaceutical organizations bottom line will, eventually, become subject to competition from generics.

We dont know if thats the approach that Pfizer took with Lipitor, but recent marketing for the drug has shown an increased focus on the trustworthiness and proven reliability of the brand, acknowledging that competitors will soon flood the market.

That will help, but it wont be enough to salvage Lipitors dominant position as the cholesterol drug of choice something Pfizer recognizes in its decision to lay off additional sales and administrative staff.

Lipitor is the highest-grossing drug of all time, worth more than $10 billion in revenue to Pfizer last year alone. Whats more, Pfizer has fairly recent history as a guide, and it isnt pretty: Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Limited took over the Zocor (another high-cholesterol treatment) helm when Merck Inc. lost its U.S. Zocor patent in 2006. By the end of 2007, Teva’s generic version of Zocor, called Simvastatin, – had cut Merck’s Zocor sales by 80 percent.

Whats a pharma marketer to do?

Understand that the long-term positioning for any drugs life after patent expiration doesnt start a year or even a few years before the patents expire: It starts on day one of the drugs launch. Not every pharma product can enter mainstream awareness like Viagra, but every product can strive to sell trust and results, not just clinical benefits.

Bind users to a community or other resources, not just to the product. This strategy has made organizations like Weight Watchers clear leaders in their market segments, and many of the strategies theyve used to create and sustain long-term affinity with their brands can be replicated for widely used drugs. Whether its an online community of peer support, deep resources for patients or a rich, engaging presence within social media, there are many fronts where pharma can make their tentpole brands bigger by making the drug itself a smaller part of the overall experience.

No one likes losing a sure thing, and thats what the patent expiration of a blockbuster drug can mean. But with careful strategic planning, there can be a strong role for these established, strong brands in a competitive landscape as well.

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