How behavioural science tripled a new drug's sales

In 2016, pharmaceutical companies in the US spent approximately $27bn on marketing and advertising. The question is – did the $27bn work? No one knows. Or as John Wanamaker put it in his famous quote: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half”.

Our client, one of the top 5 pharmaceutical companies globally, faced a similar challenge. Before launching a new diabetes drug, they asked physicians their likelihood to prescribe it and the results looked promising. Fast forward to post launch, the sales of the drug only achieved half of what was forecast. So what went wrong? Why didn’t physicians act the way they said they were going to? The market research director of the diabetes category asked us to help answer these questions and our solutions landed them a 200% increase in sales in the following quarter!

Our client approached us to design a behavioural science approach to answer this question. We created a three step research methodology, grounded in insights from behavioural science, that overcame traditional market research limitations and answered our client’s questions:

  1. Qualitative exploration: First we needed to get to the root of why the physicians would say one thing and do another. In-depth conversations with physicians helped us understand the nonconscious barriers they face when prescribing medications. Traditional qualitative interviews are highly structured lists of questions, leaving little room for the participant to lead the conversation. Our psychoanalytic approach instead allowed the interviewers to explore more creatively, to understand the true unconscious decision making process. The list of key triggers and barriers from this stage provided a foundation to create the nudges in the next step.
     

  2. Creating nudges: We then embarked on an intense and scientifically rigorous process to create "nudges" – nonconscious influence marketing techniques. These help overcome the barriers, such as habit, inertia or risk aversion, identified in the previous step. We used frameworks grounded in academia as a starting point, keeping in mind the regulatory requirements of the pharmaceutical industry. Our consultants created over 80 nudges then refined them with the client down to a top 11 – which we then tested using a new online method.
     

  3. Simulated RCT: We needed to test the nudges in a way that ensured physicians would not give us an over-rationalised response. A randomised control trial (RCT) was the way to go – but a traditional RCT could have taken 18 months, required regulatory approval and millions of dollars of investment. We created a revolutionary simulated RCT in which physicians were presented with realistic patient scenarios under time pressure, simulating real prescribing decisions. They were shown a specific nudge at regular intervals to observe any change in the prescription outcome as a result. Using the simulated RCT approach we identified the top 4 nudges that had the highest positive impact in prescribing behaviour, while saving time and being cost effective.
     

The outcome? A 200% increase in sales for the drug in the next quarter with an upward trend thereafter. The client has subsequently asked us to provide our behavioural science and nudge expertise on their ongoing research for the same product.

Three key benefits of using a simulated RCT approach to develop and test interventions:

  • Accelerate marketing and advertising campaigns: traditional field experiments can take anywhere from 12-36 months due to logistical hurdles; a simulated RCT can give you similar results in less than 2 months.

  • Use your budget efficiently: pharma companies spend billions of dollars on marketing and advertising to physicians and consumers – spend a fraction of this on behaviour change interventions and multiply your ROI.

  • Reduced regulatory constraints: having worked in the industry, we understand the strict regulatory guidelines pharma companies must adhere to. Online simulated research does not face the same restrictions as in-field marketing or product tests, making it easier to conduct faster and more economical research.

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