You’re a Pre-Commercial Biotech – Why Focus on Marketing?
Updated: Apr 10, 2021
Welcome to Molecular Ideas, and thank you for sharing your time with us! Today, we will discuss the five key elements of positioning your life science startup and its importance in ensuring your success.
I was recently speaking with the founder and scientific lead of an innovative diagnostic company. We were discussing how to expand the team behind her and her co-founders to encompass more functional areas of expertise that would be critical to moving from grant to investor-based funding. As an experienced clinician, she had almost all the major functions covered: executive leadership, engineering, clinical, finance, and regulatory affairs.
Naturally, I asked: “Where are you with marketing?”
Her reaction intrigued me. “Well, we’re still in the prototyping phase – we’re years out from needing to worry about that.”
Regardless of whether you’re developing a drug, device, or diagnostic, understanding the core of your marketing strategy early is critical to your company’s long-term success.
Marketing is not simply reflective of your company’s strategy – marketing is the foundation of your company’s strategy.
While it’s true that anyone in the prototyping phase of diagnostic development or the pre-clinical phase of drug development isn’t going to be running advertising campaigns any time soon, it is critical to begin the development process with the end market in mid. This means looking beyond what makes your product functionally different, and examining the impact those differences will have on the market. Essentially we’re looking at your product’s – and company’s – positioning. As Al Reis & Jack Trout put it in their famous book ‘Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind’, positioning is what makes you different in the minds of your audience.
Your ‘audience’ is relatively simple when we’re talking about consumer products like detergent, cell phones, or sweaters. These products lend themselves well to clear segmentation that define straightforward reasons to purchase, as well as price floors and ceilings.
In the life sciences, we need to adopt a broader mindset. Our ‘end customers’ include the various healthcare professionals responsible for prescribing and administering our products, as well as the patients who have to accept and adhere to treatments. Further, our companies are central to the complex interplay between these stakeholders as well as investors, payers, patient support programs, regulators and families.
This complex stakeholder interplay demands a holistic approach to marketing. By examining each of the following components in sequence, you can develop a clear set of guidelines, guardrails, and goals to define how you can position your product in the ever-evolving healthcare market.
1) Product Profile
Your product’s technical attribute profile is the core element of positioning any new life science product. It is a logical starting point. Unlike a kitchen appliance or software product, we cannot afford to ‘guesstimate’ the impact of our product’s features on patient quality-of-life and clinical outcomes. As life science entrepreneurs, we have to rely on clinically-generated and validated data to define where our products can help patients – and where they cannot.
However, many life science entrepreneurs err in assuming that clinical data validating the mechanism of action is all that is needed to justify the existence (and reimbursement) of a product. This may be true in select first-in-class cases with critical unmet needs. However, there is still no guarantee that these data will convince anyone to invest in, try out, or represent your product. For that, we have to look beyond the product profile to define the impact your product will have on our various stakeholders.
2) Competitive Landscape
Let’s continue with the positioning component closest to the product profile – the competitive landscape. Since positioning is all about defining how our product is different than that of our competitors, we need to have a clear understanding the current market. Why? Simple – the stories your competitors tell generate clear brand narratives in the minds of your audience, and set their expectations for your product.
For instance, if we are examining a new antibody-drug conjugate (ADC) to treat specific serotypes of breast cancer (such as VelosBio’s VLS-101 for TNBC or Luminal B Breast Cancer), we need to understand our product profile, our competitor’s product profiles, and where our therapy falls in the treatment life cycle for patients. From there, we can work to position our product and our company narrative in the market’s blank spaces. When working with partners, I try to closely understand the following about or product and market to the best of our ability:
Where does our product fall in the treatment life cycle?
What are the notable impacts of our product (vs others) on patient quality-of-life?
What are the notable impacts of our product (vs others) on healthcare practitioner ease-of-use or clinical outcomes?
How well established are competitors in the minds of payers, practitioners, and prescribers? What would they change if they could?
What is the market satisfaction of current solutions, and what would stakeholders prefer to ensure better experiences and outcomes with our product?
Of course, these are broad questions to serve as starting points for discussion and debate amongst your team. I strongly recommend bringing as many of your colleagues, partners, and advisors into discussions to help answer these questions – a clinical lead is likely to have a very different perspective than a commercialization specialist or investor relations guru. In aggregate, these answers form the basis for a thoughtful cross-section of the market. This exercise also offers opportunities to define how we can aim to tailor our product to meet some of those market needs (where the science allows).
3) Therapeutic Class
Now we can look to gain insight from the broader landscape of your product’s therapeutic class. While you may be focusing on an ADC for breast cancer, or an otoscope for diagnosing ear infections, there are trends in the broader cancer or pediatric diagnostic space that are worth paying attention to when crafting your story and strategy.
How so? By looking outside our bubble, we can identify and ideate on effective narratives that are proven in the category, but have not yet been leveraged in your market.
Positioning development in the life sciences does not have to be a zero-sum game. Even the most saturated markets find news ways to tell their story beyond marketing’s 4Ps.
We’ve seen this kind of storytelling before with Eisai’s Halaven. While most oncology treatments leverage mechanism-of-action-driven branding (e.g., Merck’s Keytruda or Astellas’ Xtandi), Eisai clearly borrowed from other therapeutic areas to create a story that eased one of the greatest fears of chemotherapy – side effects. Halavan literally has the word ‘Haven’ in it, implying that this treatment isn’t losing the forest through the trees – or in this case, the patient through the tumor.
Our last two areas of positioning in the life sciences continue to realize this focus. They are our product’s brand personality and our overall vision & mission. There are tomes of reading on both these subjects (not to mention excessively long agency meetings), but here’s a set of guiding questions to keep in mind:
4) Brand Personality
a) Who are we serving, and what is the promise we intend to keep through serving them?
b) What tone would they use to tell our (product’s) story about fulfilling that promise?
c) What elements of this story or tone are unique in the space?
From there, you can look deeper into comparing your story to that of other life science companies and well-known companies in other industries (e.g., food, tech, etc.). As I mentioned, there are tomes of reading online and in various books about the dimensions of brand personality – if you’re interested, keep your answers in the above questions in mind while reading!
As entrepreneurs, we love to make comparisons to established counterparts in the market place (i.e., ‘We’re the Uber of ______’ or ‘The Oracle of ______’). Looking beyond the product profile and functionality allows us to define the tone with which you tell your story about how your team solves critical problems to unmet needs. Otherwise, your story blends in with the crowd’s.
5) Vision & Mission
Finally, there is our vision and mission. It is my experience that early-stage life science companies have a general sense of these prior to a product profile. The key phrase here is ‘general sense’; when trying to build a company from the ground up, these are very easy to put off until tomorrow.
However, these statements serve as a fundamental check to align who we are as an organization with the story we are sharing with investors, selling to practitioners, and working to realize through our product each day.
There is an old improv acting adage that I often use – ‘How you do what do you is who you are.’ To reiterate, conducting these marketing analyses early allows you to build a solid foundation for your company’s strategy. Advancing from early-stage, grant-driven funding to investor funding demands a cohesive, thoughtful narrative that moves beyond the ‘what we want to do’ to ‘how we do so differently’. Investors will look to these points to help them make informed decisions about how you have analyzed the market and risk around their capital. Patients and patient support organizations will expect that you clearly understand the challenges they are facing. Healthcare practitioners need to be sold as much on why they should change their prescribing habits as much as on your improvements in clinical outcomes.
And above all, every team member will be looking for unity on these five points as you seek to build your organization. These are the criteria that can be used to prioritize development decisions and funding usage. These points are stars, used to form a constellation by which your team will navigate the sea of day-to-day challenges between you today and your first reimbursed usage. Start today.
That’s all for today! As always, feel free to share this post with friends, colleagues, and entrepreneurs! You can sign up to leave your thoughts, ideas, opinions, and suggestions in the comments.