A New Approach for Pharma Competitor Strategy

Thought Leadership /
Posted on 29th May '18


Innovative pharma brand teams are finding there’s a new and better way to respond to competitive situations. The traditional approach relies on CI and data to inform competitive strategy and brand planning, but our view is that this is missing a trick. At the heart of our approach is the question, “Which of your stakeholders, if you consider the influence and impact of each, singularly has the most influence on your product’s future performance?”. Unequivocally, it is your customer.

In this article, we explore what it means for you to ‘walk in your customer’s shoes’, we share ideas to help view the competitive landscape through their eyes and we explain how this new approach uncovers and elevates what is most important in order to drive a winning competitor strategy.

Setting the competitive scenario

The pharma environment is highly competitive and challenging: whether preparing a brand for launch; if new data or an extended indication has come to light; if you’re seeking to differentiate against a new competitor or perhaps anticipating a generic or biosimilar entry to your market.

Whilst these scenarios are familiar, it doesn’t mean your response should be conventional. So how can you significantly improve your approach to a competitive situation?

Please adjust your lenses, it’s time for a fresh field of vision.

When developing a competitive strategy, a data-focused and wargaming workshop approach will take you only part of the way, because this traditional approach misses an important piece: it lacks translation of the data through the customer lens. The outcome, it falls short of responding to the vital questions we should seek answers to, such as: What does that data really mean for the humans that use, choose and endorse brands? How will they engage with and interpret the data? What impact will it have on their decision making in practice?

Our fresh approach takes the new data and add a further stage to interpret it from the point of view of the customer. Only when you have this real understanding of how your customer will interpret and respond, and how the facts will impact on their beliefs and behaviours when it comes to treatment and prescribing decisions, can you seek ways to differentiate and develop a sustainable competitive advantage for your brand.

So, know your competitors (yes, absolutely). But be sure to then switch your lens from analysing your competitor to focusing in on your customer and looking at the situation through their eyes. Seek to understand what the impact of this new competitor data will be in a real-life context, alongside the many varied factors that will influence your customer’s beliefs and resulting behaviours as, every day, they make the choices on how to provide the best care for their patients.

Challenging the status quo

The competitor threat is multi-layered and tackling it requires multiple perspectives: where and how will your competitors seek to position in the market? What is the threat to your brand? How will the customers interpret the data and how will it affect their prescribing behaviour? How can you differentiate and maximise your brand’s success.

A typical war-gaming workshop scenario will focus on competitor actions and base its objectives and outputs on achieving one-upmanship, i.e. “Competitor A demonstrates X% growth, therefore we are aiming for X+% growth”. Does this approach make commercial sense? Well, as a market share metric, maybe. But it has shortcomings if what matters for the longer term is positioning your brand with real and sustainable competitive advantage. If you focus on the facts and data alone, you are pitching molecule vs molecule – a hard battleground to win – as opposed to brand vs brand (the entities that exist in your customer’s head) with meaningful differentiation.

With a competitor focus, we can to some extent hypothesise about competitor positioning and strategy and assess the level of threat. However, what really determines how the competitive scenario will play out is knowing what matters most to your customer (and patient), knowing what the HCP/prescriber is trying to achieve and what they believe to be true, about the available treatment options and about the needs of their patient.

The route to revolution.

In our organisation, providing consultancy to global healthcare brand teams and working with them on strategically important brands, we know how the classic approach plays out – and across our team we’ve been there, as both consultants and in senior client-side roles. In parallel, as a group of professionals who continually strive to build our knowledge and do things better, we have researched behaviour change models from wide and varied sources to combine first-hand experience with a scientific understanding of human decision making. So, many years and dozens of completed client projects down the line, what can we share to perhaps help you think a little differently about your response to a competitive situation?

Let’s start with a blank page – imagine we’re designing a new, competitive brand strategy workshop and scoping out what the ideal end outputs will look like, what are the questions we will typically want answers to?In our work, we know that collectively arriving at these outputs is important. But really, is there anything original here? Our view is that extraordinary doesn’t start with conventional. The difference with our approach is it is designed to understand how the new data will impact your customer. We walk in their shoes. As a brand team, you can only influence your customer’s behaviour if you understand what their needs are and what they are trying to achieve when they make the decisions they do. So now let’s expand on how we do this, starting with our technique to understand your customer’s needs, their jobs to be done.


Understanding the decision drivers. Knowing the JTBD.

Jobs to be done (JTBD) was developed by Clay Christensen from Harvard Business School as a way to understand customer needs, motivations and behaviours. Instead of focusing solely on the product features or the customer profile, it focuses on the ‘job to be done’, i.e. what the customer is trying to achieve when they use a product – in an HCP’s case, when they prescribe a treatment.

The HCP is prescribing a treatment as a solution to a problem and JTBD has three elements to help us better understand all the problems they are facing: the functional, emotional and social jobs to be done. In oncology, for example, where the efficacy of a drug is of paramount importance in the HCP’s choice of treatment, clearly there are many other JTBD the HCP is also trying to satisfy:

When you understand the full range of your customer’s needs, you can assess how your competitor’s brand may be positioned to meet them. We can then overlay competitor data and activity (actual or anticipated) to understand the impact it is likely to have on your customer’s beliefs and its effect on the decisions they make.

The difference with this approach is that walking in your customer’s shoes enables you to understand which attributes are most important and pinpoint what will trigger a behaviour shift. It provides a realistic context to identify the key beliefs and behaviours that competitors will need to drive to realise their goal, and it helps your team identify the key battleground and know where to place their focus in order to shape the desired beliefs and behaviours for your brand to succeed.

The thinking applied: a real-world example

How transforming your approach can radically change the outcomes

Time to move on from the theory. Let’s look at how this technique and our approach has been applied in practice in a recent competitor differentiation project we ran for a global in-line brand.

The client brand had been losing market share to a class competitor, despite feeling that their own data was superior. Their previous approach had been competitor led and now they felt they needed a new perspective. To set the context, the patient’s condition has no cure and the drug helps manage the condition to end of life. The focus had been on clinical endpoints and not on the breadth of functional, emotional and social JTBD that are important to the HCP and patient. By viewing the situation through the HCP’s and patient’s windows and understanding all the important needs, it changed the focus.

By moving beyond product features and clinical endpoints it unlocked a different story around managing the patient experience. It uncovered a new understanding of the benefits the patient may gain by earlier intervention, allowing the brand team to translate their data into meaningful customer benefits.

The key steps in our approach to reach this new, clearly differentiated story were:

  • We identified key touchpoints at different stages of the customer journey that presented opportunities or challenges to the brand.
  • We identified how moving beyond the HCP’s functional JTBD, to consider how the emotional and social needs might also be met, presented new opportunities.
  • It resulted in clear critical success factors that identified where differentiation could best be realised. By aligning the brand to what the HCPs are trying to achieve (across functional, emotional and social elements) and highlighting how a shift in prescribing behaviour would improve patient quality of life, we were able to increase the brand’s relevance.
  • It highlighted a significant barrier to overcome, in this case a hygiene factor, to improve understanding of the ease of administration.

What does the brand team say: “This helped us embark on an exciting new journey, where we have taken a fundamentally different approach to how we communicate our value to customers.” Global CI Lead, Top 5 pharma company

The classic approach in this case (pitching molecule vs molecule centred on the functional element alone), would not have considered the emotional and social elements. Data is part of the picture, but there is a broader landscape. The opportunity lies in interpreting the data, understanding the potential impact of that data and how that data fits with what is important to our customer. In this case study, data showed treating early in diagnosis improved the quality of the remaining life of the patient. So, the competitive strategy needs to focus on elevating awareness of the genuine benefit that results from earlier prescribing, as opposed to simply pushing the superior mortality data. The opportunity was about creating ‘an urgency to treat’.

Leaders put customers, not convention, at the heart of competitive strategy.

As a brand team leader, it’s your job to build messaging around the attributes of your product to drive your brand’s sales. Messaging will be most powerful when anchored around all 3 elements of your customer’s needs – emotional and social as well as functional.

At the heart of the learnings is that the traditional CI approach is missing the important customer piece. In a competitive situation, as well as analysing your competitor, it’s vital that you view the landscape through your customer’s window too. Ask, “What is their perception?”, because you can only influence your customer’s behaviour if you understand their JTBD and the beliefs that underpin these behaviours.

Our new, augmented approach works through the strategic process to understand customer beliefs and behaviours, to identify what’s important to them and interpret the impact of changes in the competitive landscape for your most important stakeholder. It enables you to respond accordingly, with an ability to deliver on the emotional and social jobs to be done, as well as the functional elements. Your subsequent actions will be rooted in a more robust and rounded foundation. This insight-powered, unified view also helps drive alignment across your team, functions and geographical areas helping to build a brand with distinctive differentiation that resonates more effectively with your customer.

And ultimately, it means the patient will benefit. This approach, when followed through to market, reshapes the competitive environment. It enables the HCP’s choices and treatment decisions to be based on better information and more effective communication that relate to all their important needs. When this results in an improved experience, better quality of life or a more positive outcome for the patient, unquestionably it’s a transformation that’s worthwhile.

For your patient, customer, team and all your stakeholders, is now the time to refocus your approach and set your sights higher?

Transforming your response to competitive situations can begin with one small step. If you’re curious about our fresh new approach and how it could align stakeholders and boost performance for your brand, then we’d love to hear from you. Please contact Simon Campling or Gareth Hall. If you’d just like to find out a bit more about who we are and what we do, then we’re right here.

Now it’s your turn – download our framework so you can see what Jobs to Be Done are required from your brand!

Like What You Read?

Get in touch

White Star Icon

Share this page

Blue Background Lines

Related Thinking

Is it Ever too Early to Start Pharma Brand Positioning?

      Most good pharma brand leaders would agree that launching a new br...

Read Article

How to Plan & Run Effective Virtual Workshops

Top Tips for Pharma and Healthcare Brand Teams The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted every...

Read Article

Does Your Brand Tracking Help You Optimise Performance in a Digital World?

Strategic North: A Brand Health Special In the quest for world class performance, how d...

Read Article

How to Plan and Run a High Performing Pharma Workshop

  Top Tips for Pharma & Healthcare Brand Teams In our work, rarely a week goes...

Read Article