If industry is the dark side of science, strategic marketing is the dark side of industry, or so it seems. As scientists sitting in teams with our strategic marketing colleagues, we always wondered how they came up with those projections of how much revenue a drug would have in 2025 (yes, they do those projections in industry). We frequently joked about our colleagues pulling numbers out of a hat or playing with darts to come up with those numbers. Nonetheless, when my Strategic Marketing colleagues spoke up, they made a lot of sense talking about understanding the customer (in this case, the doctors who would prescribe a drug) and aiming to fulfill an unmet need as opposed to putting another me-too drug on the market. Based on such conversations, I suspected there was more to Strategic Marketing, and I wanted to understand it.
A few years ago, we were evaluating an interesting diagnostic test. The science was solid and the statistics could not be stronger. Then the pathologist asked a very simple question: what kind of sample do you use? And everything began to unravel. It turned out, the sample needed was not one that was routinely used, and therefore the potential customers, pathologists and oncologists, would not be able to use this test. This simple realization put the whole concept at risk as there was no market. When the pathologist pointed it out, the scientists in the group mentioned that the marketing people had raised that concern as well. Aha! The marketing folks were up to something.
More recently, as we were starting a cross-sector project developing a new technology platform, I had the opportunity to work closely with my commercial colleagues to better define the value of the project. This was an interesting exercise as it was very easy to come up with the financial value of it for one group: how much money will it bring to the group that focused on technology. The argument became that much more difficult for the drug development group. We knew this was an important project, and it would be beneficial, but how much? This technology would not have monetary value, but it would have a huge impact on development. But how did we quantify that? How could we convince senior management that this was worth the investment?
In the last year, I have learned that the role of the Strategic Marketing team is to take a scientific idea and convert it into a product that the market will receive well. For the market to take a product, be it the latest smartphone or the newest drug, some requirements need to be met.
The first one is there has to be an unmet need whether real or created. A new drug for pancreatic cancer meets a very real unmet need while the need for a new smartphone may be a little bit more of a fabrication. In either case, there is a desire for a product. The Strategic Marketing group’s role is to understand what that unmet need really is and whether our science can address that unmet need.
The second one is that the product has to beat the competition either by getting to market first or by being better than the competition. Preferably both. In order to beat the competition, we need to understand what the competition is doing and what we need to do to compete with them.
Finally, the product has to have a positive value, that is, it has to produce revenue after all the expenses of development have been paid in order for the company to invest in the next wave of products. Drug development is expensive and, in order to make the investment, we need to know we are going to recover it. That’s where market research to understand the unmet need and the competitive landscape come into the picture, and our Strategic Marketing colleagues make their most educated assumptions around market size, product penetration, etc to estimate the potential earnings of a new drug 15 years down the road.
Strategic Marketing is an art, but it is heavily based on solid science, one that was unfamiliar to me a year ago, but one that also makes sense and ensures that our great discoveries are put to good use to maximize the value and impact to society.