Playing Catch-Up: The Evolution Of Pharma Marketing

By Luke Satchell, Senior Strategist, RAPP UK

Pharmaceutical marketing – it’s a bit odd, isn’t it? Almost impossible to categorize in the traditional marketing sense. Is it B2B? Yes, in some markets, but not in most. Is it B2C? Yes! But only in the U.S. and New Zealand. And maybe in Canada, but not really. Is it B2B2C? Stop it. My brain hurts.

Questions and grey areas abound in pharma marketing, and those entering into it for the first time can often feel a little overwhelmed. But how different can it really be? The answer is “immeasurably”, and at the same time, “not at all”.

Walking the regulation tightrope

The main difference in pharma marketing compared to other industries is the dos and the don’ts. Or more accurately, the ‘cans and the can’ts’. And there are many, many more can’t than cans. Take the UK for example. Pharma marketing/advertising is regulated by no fewer than three bodies: the MHRA (attached to government), the ABPI (the watchmen), and the PMCPA (the watchers of the watchmen).

There are more than 180 pages of rules and regulations to adhere to, across both the MHRA’s Blue Book and the ABPI’s Code of Practice (revised every two years). Sometimes it can feel like trying to put up a billboard in a minefield.

And that’s just the UK – don’t get me started on Canada. Or France. Or Italy. In fact, just don’t get me started.


This is the primary reason why pharma has been slower than most to embrace marketing transformation. Their approach to marketing may have been stuck in the past, but it has not been entirely the fault of pharma brands, given how strictly they’re regulated.

Another significant difference is the diversity of the target audience and their constraints/motivations. Marketing one medicine can involve speaking to multiple specialties across multiple indications in multiple countries, governed by multiple sets of regulations. Some healthcare professionals (HCPs) may be purely driven by efficacy, some by safety. Some (increasingly, many) will be working under stringent budgetary constraints, whereas others will be working under an entirely different funding model, allowing them to focus more on outcomes or patient preferences.

These two mainstays of pharma marketing – regulation and audience diversity – are immovable, but they’re not insurmountable. And as pharma companies have started to catch on to this fact, it’s led to a realisation: there is no longer a place for ‘one-size-fits-all’ messaging, and the old ways must die.

The healthcare content epiphany

So the tide is turning. Over recent years, we’ve witnessed a collective ‘Road to Damascus’ moment in pharma around content marketing. This has brought about a real sense of urgency to embrace modern marketing techniques, with the pandemic serving only to accelerate the process.

Gone are the days when providing a rep with a hard copy sales-aid is the sum total of your content strategy. Getting in a room with someone – if you can – is still an important part of things, but it’s now just another channel, rather than the be-all and end-all. Staples of the modern content marketer’s toolkit such as digital channels, segmentation, customer insights, automation, retargeting and personalisation are all no longer a pipe dream for pharma marketers.

And neither, most importantly, is storytelling.

Because yes, pharma is finally embracing the fact that the best way to build trust and engage people is by telling stories. And please don’t be fooled – HCPs are people too. They are just as susceptible to a good story as anyone else. There’s more of a narrative tightrope to be walked, sure, but if you can get it right, you have a far better chance of cutting through the noise than just using neutral copy and clinical trial data.

So as it turns out, despite the myriad obstacles and hoops they have to jump through, pharma marketers – while not quite being on the same page as everyone else just yet – are at least reading from the same playbook. They’re starting to plot their campaigns in terms of narrative, they’re serving up personalised, engaging stories, and they’re searching for that content ‘sweet spot’ between what the audience wants to hear, and what the business needs to say.

Perhaps they’re not so different after all?