In our previous blogs, we discussed the challenges of navigating cultural and language differences when conducting global market research. Those challenges could be described as anthropological; they’re byproducts of human diversity. But the global market researcher must also grapple with the ways in which political, institutional and economic factors influence market conditions and market access around the world. For the pharmaceutical industry, this means taking into account each country’s unique medical environment.
One important consideration is the regulatory and reimbursement climate. A well-known example: In Great Britain, the National Health Service refuses to reimburse cancer patients for treatment with the antiangiogenesis drug Avastin, citing insufficient evidence that its benefits justify its lofty costs. Though this therapy is widely prescribed in other countries, few British patients can have access to it. So if a manufacturer hopes to market a medication with a similar mechanism of action in the U.K., it will have to convince regulators as well as oncologists that its cost-benefit ratio is significantly superior to Avastin’s.
Other aspects of a country’s medical environment include the range of available therapies and the types of physicians who treat a given disorder. Yet companies sometimes draw up global marketing strategies before they’ve investigated such issues fully. That can lead to awkward situations. A few years ago, for instance, my company was approached by a small biotech startup whose first product was a drug to combat a rare blood cancer. The enthusiastic leadership team were eager to begin selling their discovery, and they hired us to interview key opinion leaders to determine which physicians should be targeted. We learned that in the United States, a patient suspected of having this type of cancer is typically referred to a community-based oncologist by her GP for diagnosis and treatment. Because the disorder is fast-moving and difficult to control, the specialist often ends up quickly transferring the patient to an academic hospital where more treatment options are available.
Based on our findings, the commercial team drew up a physician targeting plan aimed at community oncologists—not only in the U.S., but in seven European countries. They began partnering with European marketers to support the promotion of their new treatment among key stakeholders. Then they asked us to interview a few medical experts in Europe about patient-referral patterns there, just to confirm that the strategy was valid.
When we interviewed experts in Germany, we learned that referral patterns matched those in the U.S. But in France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Austria and the Netherlands, things were quite different: In those countries, GPs sent patients suspected of having this particular disorder directly to academic hospitals. Community oncologists were seldom involved.
Our client responded with consternation and disbelief. If our report was correct, it meant their company had wasted time and money on a flawed targeting plan; worse, they would have to admit their mistake to their foreign partners. Yet further research confirmed our initial findings, and the team had no choice but to revamp their strategy. Fortunately, they were nimble enough to ace the readjustment, and they soon achieved a successful launch.
They also learned a valuable lesson—in global marketing, it’s best to act on data, not assumptions. Marketers need to understand the specific medical environment of each target country. As they say where I come from, Il ne faut pas vendre la peau de l’ours avant de l’avoir tué. Or in plain English: Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched.