The increasing (?) role of digital in Pharma

It is heartening to see that Pharma marketers have finally decided to include digital into their marketing mix. Even if catalysed by Covid, this is good news. Evan Schwartz called it “digital darwinism” – a phenomenon that caused technology to evolve faster than the society which adopts it. 

The average Indian Pharma marketer has evolved thus:

As technology, its uses and the products that make it relevant to the Pharma business abound, not many have been able to understand it optimally. This made most of us “digitally unaware” or what is less kindly called “illiterates”. These were typically people who thought that digital was just a “wave” or a ‘bubble’ that would eventually burst.

Gartner predicted in 2014 that 75% of all businesses (not just pharma) would eventually become or prepare to become digital businesses by 2020. There is no way, they could have seen Covid catalyse the change, and yet their prediction came true. This eventually means that >90% of customers are already online, since businesses merely follow customers and rarely blaze a new path. The forced shutdown since March helped us realise this in the best possible manner. 

As physical meetings with customers became off-limits, companies were first stumped and then baffled. Soon, realisation dawned that other routes presented opportunities to reach out to them, creating the “digitally aware”. This caused a great deal of floundering to seek out technology. People scrambled to pick tech off the shelves and arm themselves with almost anything that was on offer.

In the near future, after a few months of deployment, we might realise that although we are ‘doing digital’, it isn’t as rosy as they had promised it would be! It will probably also clarify two important concepts in our minds – 1) Pushing products isn’t what customers want. And if that isn’t what they want, then what do they want? This Q might make us see the light, that we really don’t know. We always thought we did, but not quite. 

This important step in the evolution of digital transformation is what helps us understand the new ways of working. Ushered in by the new normal, it requires us to fundamentally change the way we operate. This realisation will make us “digital utilitarians” – or people who understand how to use technology to do business in a better way. 

We will then realise that the changed ways of working are less about doing the same thing via a new medium, and more about doing what the customer wants. Customer behaviours change quite a bit when they move online. The impersonal medium reduces personal relationships, the obligations that come with them, and sometimes induces rude or irrational behaviour. Dealing with online media to manage relationships is a very different ball game. 

We reach a stage of “digital experts” when we realise that our:

Intent is to serve customers at scale through an outside-in view

Content is to use the context that comes from customer insights, develop relevant content and use the right channels (context -> content -> channel)

Strategy is to bring the voice of the customer into the organisation and co-create value through data, journeys and maps

Skills is to ensure that the commercial teams obsess over customers, develop the skills (and not depend on a ‘digital team’), own the outreach and wrap it around their brand strategies. 

The seeming scale of transformation presents a scary thought and that is probably a reason, why it does not induce great enthusiasm in management. It need not be so. A simple 4 step model to transform can make it seem less scary and it is hoped, encourage more managements to think positively about. You can read more about this process here.

Here is to hoping that Indian pharma is soon full of digital experts who have their intent honed well, content aligned with customer context, constantly upgrading skills and thinking of how their strategy  can serve at scale. 

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