Does Apple hold the secret to success in pharma?

When Apple launched the iPhone X at the end of 2017, it introduced its most expensive phone yet priced at an eye watering $1000+. Yet the gamble paid off. Retailers quickly added it to their listings, technology experts broadly applauded the face recognition technology and consumers have flocked to extricate themselves from existing mobile contracts to own the iPhone X. It is no surprise that the Apple brand is consistently recognised as one of the most valuable brands in the world.[1]

Imagine this kind of ‘launch success’ in the pharmaceutical industry. While there are differences there are also notable parallels, such as having to reconcile the needs of multiple diverse stakeholders, the decline of the ‘blockbuster’ and the challenge of managing high cost innovation while also satisfying the demands of investors.

Apple understands its end-users, in a way many pharmaceutical companies with goals of patient-centricity want to. But in the heavily regulated pharmaceutical industry some struggle to put in place the right operating model, governance, skills and other capabilities required to deliver successful patient-centric drugs to market.

What lessons can pharmaceutical companies learn from Apple?

Use empathy to answer patient-centric questions

How can you increase compliance among adolescent sufferers of Type 2 diabetes? What will optimise the approach to MRI scanning for children with cancer?

In each of these questions, the answers came from empathy for the patient. Bayer identified the value of gamification to incentivise adolescent T2Diabetes patients to monitor blood sugar levels and medicate accordingly. GE designed a more child-friendly and less terrifying experience of MRI scanning. It improved the patient experience, reduced the need for sedation and increased productivity levels. This mirrors the Apple approach, shaped by Steve Jobs’ belief in the power of empathy for consumers everyday experience to shape the future product experience. Healthcare could be dramatically different if we imagine the future through the eyes of patients.

In a drug development process that on average spans 12 years and costs £1.15bn per drug [2] the eventual delivery of patient outcomes can be a distant prospect for the lab scientist in development. Patient-centricity needs to be brought up front to guide and shape drug development.

Build patient-centric methodologies, skills and processes for R&D

Real World Evidence helps focus attention on patient outcomes, rather than just competitive claims around the molecule, compound or pill. There is now broad acceptance of the need to go ‘beyond the pill’ and take a holistic approach to realise the full benefits of a medicine.

For years an urban myth circulated that Apple does not do market research. It simply isn’t true. Certainly, Apple don’t do pointless market research using techniques ill-suited to their business questions. Instead, they invest in techniques that deliver deep insights into consumer behaviours, attitudes, driving motivations and perceptions. They use ethnography, user observation, usability testing and other methods to inspire design and iterate prototypes to reach a genuinely great user experience.

How can pharmaceutical firms build patient-centricity into R&D capabilities in a practical, powerful way?

  • Increase skill and confidence in segmentation, patient & prescriber profiling to inform how patient value can be delivered.
  • Use patient and stakeholder empathy techniques to bring real human insight to an otherwise highly technical process (notice Apple’s use of ethnography throughout the design of each iteration of the iPhone)
  • Greater cross-functional collaboration, from the start of the development process. This means marketing and insight functions collaborating with medical colleagues to set the agenda and define the unmet patient needs that clinical development will target.
  • External collaboration. Pharmacos often engage patient groups only as they prepare to launch. However, these groups can bring different perspectives and insights early in the process, helping improve the focus on patient value during drug or service development

Techniques such as these can help optimise development at every stage. They reduce the barriers for patients in signing up to clinical trials, help define the bullseye target patient population, quantify the unmet need, strengthen or extend the value proposition and create payer value propositions that deliver outcomes-based value.

Being patient-centric requires a different set of skills and capabilities not commonly found among the academics, bench scientists and researchers of medicine development. Brand Learning has recently worked with a global pharmaceutical client to help develop a patient-centred purpose and emotionally engaging value proposition for HCPs and payers, to support drug launches in Asia. We employed creative approaches to gaining patient insight, developing empathy and sharing this cross-functionally to infuse patient-centricity across the entire launch team.

Much of the debate about patient-centricity in drug development focusses on improving recruitment into drug trials, understanding & overcoming barriers, building & re-building trust. However, there are important implications for the R&D organisation and operating model. Scientific and technical expertise must be combined with commercial and business acumen. It is for this reason that a top 5 company recently worked with Brand Learning to deliver ‘business acumen’ capability building for its R&D division.

The Pharma industry needs to take a leaf out of the Apple book. Apple has a UX culture. Previous Experience Evangelist, Mark Kawano said of the culture within Apple “Everybody is thinking about US and design, not just the designers. And that’s what makes everything about the product so much better… much more than any individual designer or design team”. In other words, the whole company is focused on consumers.

So, spend time with patients and the professionals who care for them. Learn about the real physical and emotional needs of patients first-hand, developing real human empathy. Use this understanding to identify and anticipate unmet needs and ultimately deliver valuable patient outcomes. Whilst we all think that the ‘Doctor knows best’, let’s accept that in this age of information and transparency, the patient knows a thing or two too!

Brand Learning has worked with numerous global pharmaceutical clients to increase capabilities in patient insight techniques, translating patient empathy into unique and powerful value propositions and to invent future patient experiences. The voice of the patient can only enrich drug development. It is never too early to start listening and don’t ever stop!

Read our other blog on how pharma companies often struggle to embed patient-centricity, where we share practical examples of what they can do to change. 

BRAND LEARNING: Inspiring people. Lifting capabilities. Growing organisations.




[3] Improving Medication Adherence: A New Marketing Opportunity for the Pharmaceutical Industry. September 18 2017