With patents expiring, Big Pharma shifts outreach focus

With patents on 20 of the top-selling prescription drugs expiring within 14 months, generic versions will siphon $255 billion in annual sales from pharma companies.

With patents on 20 of the top-selling prescription drugs expiring within 14 months, generic versions will siphon $255 billion in annual sales from pharma companies.

Braced for impact, Big Pharma is innovating PR plans to create "community" and build brand and buzz in new ways, proving there is PR life beyond the blockbuster.

In fact, despite big headlines, the recycled "expiring patents" story isn't exactly breaking news.

"We know years in advance before a patent expires," says Ray Kerins, worldwide communications VP at Pfizer. A week after the latest wave of patent stories hit in July, Pfizer broke from the pack when most media outlets ran the news that it now seeks to sell Lipitor over the counter. Lipitor is Pfizer's best-selling cholesterol-control drug, taken by 4.3 million Americans daily.

"We have a communications plan in place, that's part of the product life cycle," he adds. "But we are also focusing on the pipeline, such as a promising treatment for lung cancer, among several compounds that could hit the market within 18 months."

Setting aside expirations, pharma companies, and the healthcare industry in general, are already evolving how they communicate with constituencies.

"It used to be you slap an ad on a bus and expose your message to 5 million people to reach 5,000 diabetics," says Fleishman- Hillard SVP and partner Mark Senak. "You still can, but now you can reach those 5,000 diabetics directly with social media."

Greatest influence
No matter the malady, the most successful pharma-sponsored websites focus on conditions.

"I am less likely to be influenced by a commercial," Senak says. "I am more likely to be influenced by someone like me, suffering the same condition as me, who I can connect with online."

These tactics are not selling products directly, but they are creating communities that can be influenced.

Johnson & Johnson is developing a large following for its YouTube videos, while Pfizer now has 27 different Facebook pages in 12 languages and dozens of Twitter pages in various languages.

Meanwhile, pharma companies are also investing more in CSR and community outreach initiatives.

Pfizer runs Global Health Fellows, a program where executives can take a sabbatical and embed in hard-hit regions to help make a difference.

"CR programs can be a communications quagmire because you do this great work, but don't want to bang your chest," Kerins says. "Still, you need to sell products to be able to do these things. We're not issuing press releases on CR, but our business is part of our CR conversation."

Though Big Pharma will soon see billions in revenue evaporate, firms have yet to feel the impact.

"We are not seeing more or less business, rather different kinds," says Bruce Hayes, GM of the health division in Edelman's New York office. "Big Pharma clients are asking for more digital and more content created for specific patient groups. Sometimes, we are even co-creating content with those patient groups."

Call for specialization
As the science evolves, Hayes also touts a need for specialization.

"We are working with smaller biotech companies with innovative products," he adds. "Maybe they are not traditional block-busters, but they are meeting an unmet need."

Still, specialization comes with risk, says Peter Morrissey, president of Morrissey & Company.

"We tend to do more on the corporate side, as opposed to product side, where you need to invest in specialization," he notes. "You must be very careful where you place your bets."

With patents on 120 brand-name drugs set to expire during the next decade, and the pace of specialization accelerating, agencies will certainly have to place their bets wisely.

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