Individualism and Personalization – Or Mass Customization?

Sunil Kapoor was a successful professional. An MBA, he had his share of life that most people dreamed of. A plum assignment at an MNC, overseas trips as part of his job, out-of turn raises and a stunner for arm candy! For a few days now Sunil had a dull throbbing headache. He blamed it on the stiff deadlines that his project demanded and made a mental note to see his doctor over the weekend. The next day he felt dizzy while driving. It persisted and Sunil had to pull over and sit with his eyes closed for a while. After the spell wore off Sunil drove straight to his doctor. The chat with his doctor had a relaxing effect on Sunil’s frayed nerves. After a small check-up his doctor told him that he had high blood pressure and the headache and dizziness were because of that. Sunil heaved a sigh of relief. “Thank God I don’t have to get a scan done or visit an eye doctor,” he said. The doctor gave Sunil a prescription and asked him to take these medicines everyday and to come back for another check up after a month. When Sunil went to the chemist shop next door, he was in for a shock. The medicines that the doctor had prescribed cost hundreds of rupees. When the chemist saw the shock on his face, he suggested that Sunil take cheaper brands of the meds which cost just a fraction of the sum. Sunil had now way of knowing if this was good advice. He had read of spurious medicines and didn’t want to take a chance. He insisted on buying the meds that his doctor had prescribed and left the shop a confused man.

That evening he compared this experience with his recent shopping spree. He had bought himself some fancy designer clothes, a wrist watch and some jewelry for his wife. However, he hadn’t been in the least surprised when he had seen his bill. He was actually proud of himself! He felt lucky that he was able to afford such luxury and spent no time in flaunting his new acquisitions. So what was different when he bought his medicines? Why did he feel shocked? The watch and clothes were especially made for him and designed in a way that they fit him just the way he wanted it. The jewelry too was exactly how his wife wanted it. Sunil always chose designer clothes, watches and jewelry over the usual brands because they were just that – designer goods. These were goods that were designed for him. He didn’t mind paying a little extra as long as they were just the way he wanted it. He realized this was what disturbed him about the meds purchase. He realized that he didn’t know if he had spent his money wisely even though he could well afford the meds. Sunil did not perceive value for the money that he had spent. This was because he did not know anything about what he bought and why he bought it.

Companies often spend lots of money to determine what shapes consumer behavior and demand today and in the future. It pays to spend such money as companies know how they can individualize and personalize product and service offerings for their customers and hence retain them. At pharmaceutical companies (pharmacos) the process is not so simple. Traditionally, these companies deal with two discrete customer groups – doctors (customers) and patients (consumers). Since selling medicines involves understanding diseases and ways to treat them, it is difficult for the lay person to decide on what is best to alleviate suffering. This is best understood by a trained medical professional which is also why prescription medicines cannot be advertised. While people buy medicines over the counter, they do so for not-so-serious conditions such as a headache, stomach ache, acne etc. This makes doctors the key decision makers in the sphere. Therefore pharmacos develop technically complicated marketing programs which are targeted at doctors. The interesting thing in this business is that while doctors decide – and are therefore customers – they are not actual consumers. People who consume the products are patients to who the doctors prescribe these products. So how does the pharma marketer decide on how to deliver targeted messages to both customers and consumers? Or, how does a pharma marketer decide on an effective communication that influences the customer to decide for the consumer? Is it individualism and personalization or is it mass customization?

Individualization & Personalization
Let us discuss ‘Individualism and Personalization.’ While these concepts are not brand-new, one can see emerging technologies and new practices that make it more feasible for marketers in consumer goods and allied industries today than just a few years ago. In markets such as mobile phones and services and the music industry, younger consumers really value their individuality. They celebrate it and look to service providers and marketers to help them express their individuality and cater to their distinctive preferences. Individualism and Personalization may be highly valued to these shoppers as it enables them to filter through an over-abundance of marketing messages, products and choices and only focus on what’s most relevant to their own needs and preferences. This may also apply to a sphere with lack of information. While buying medicines, the average Indian patient has minimum to no information about the product that he buys. He buys a recommended brand purely based on the trust that his doctor has made the right choice for him.

In Sunil’s case, how was he expected to understand what was happening to him inside his body? This is further complicated by the fact that the medicines needed to treat high blood pressure were expensive. Also, patients such as Sunil rarely go to a doctor with signs of high blood pressure. Diagnosis happens by accident almost in all cases. Sunil was diagnosed with high blood pressure when he went to the doctor complaining of dizziness and headache. Sunil was neither prepared for the diagnosis nor did he understand what the doctor told him. To make things worse, when he visited the chemist to fill the Rx, he realized that he had to pay a LOT of money for the prescribed medicines. This lack of value perception in a medicine leads to potential dangerous situations such as non-compliance and generic substitution. When the consumer is confused due to lack of information, he is willing to trust the judgment of anyone who knows even a little more than he does!

This is an opportunity for pharmacos. Pharmacos can invest in creating an environment where the patient/patient’s family EXPERIENCES the disease/condition that the patient is diagnosed with. Companies have invested in patient information material that consists of pamphlets/fliers to try and educate patients on their conditions. While this is made in simple language, it rarely helps patients to come to grips with the exact nature and magnitude of his disease/condition. This is an opportunity for pharmacos to leverage technology to deal with patient queries both online and offline. If pharmacos are able to individualize counseling and subsequent treatment to each patient, it will go a long way in enabling compliance to therapy and improve overall health. Phenomenon like YouTube and MySpace give young consumers a stage for voicing their opinions and showing off their social lives and it’s influencing how they shop.

Some companies are reacting by offering customers avenues for personal expression, like personalizing a Heinz Ketchup bottle or Kleenex box with personal slogans and pictures. Can pharmacos can develop programs where the consumer can actually pick and choose the treatment type that he would like to enroll for. (Of course, this is with help from a trained medical professional. I am not advocating self-medication in any way. Self-medication is dangerous and must not be done!) This can be enabled by developing disease management programs that can be individualized to meet each patients need. These programs can be set up in multi-specialty hospitals, smaller nursing homes and even in individual doctor clinics. Pharmacos can help set up these programs which will have preliminary screening to understand the patients problem. This can be followed by extensive counseling with AV aids to help the patient understand the pathology of the disease. Wont this help him decide to pay more attention to his health and adhere to medical advice better?

Not Custom-Made But Customer-Made
It is time for products and services to move beyond custom-made and marketers must put customers to work by involving them from ideation to selling. Co-creating value with customers, as CK Prahalad aptly put it. Many companies incentivize shoppers to submit ideas for new products. These companies then produce the best ideas. A company’s product development department is not limited to the people who work for the company but could include the whole world. Companies now get customers involved by letting shoppers design products. Nike has shoppers customize running shoes and some cereal companies let consumers create their own cereal combos and flavors. Companies effectively use social networking. Some even allow everyday people to essentially open up their own on-line shop and receive commissions from the products they sell. Major retailers like PetSmart, eBay and Sony are paying the commissions. These retailers understand that today’s shoppers are easily connected to one another, are most influenced by their social group and are looking to one another to be the editor of assortments. It’s assortment optimization completely redefined!

Tailored offerings are taken to a new level at, which has developed a formula that takes a woman’s measurements and aligns them to one of seven distinct body types. Each MyShape customer gets their own home page with products that fit their shape as well as their style and fit preferences. Imagine if we can tailor in-clinic counseling with advanced video insight that alters content on a digital screen in real-time to tailor to the demographics (age, gender and ethnicity) of the audience in front of the screen. If you are a teenage girl, you will see information and video that fits your demographic. If the next person to walk by is your Dad, the screen will change to fit his demographics.

Consumers will continue to evolve – and at increasing speed – and I believe companies must evolve with them. A shopper is no longer limited by what’s at the mall and retailers are similarly not limited by what’s in their inventory today. Why should healthcare delivery products be any different? Technology is a common engine for change on both sides but so is imagination, creativity and individuality.

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