PR and the Product Lifecycle: The Main Event – Approval and Product Launches
by Michael DiSalvo
Welcome back to “PR and the Product Lifecycle,” a series where we take a look at the tools of PR across a pharma product’s lifecycle. If you missed them, check out our previous posts about communicating during clinical development and in the period before launch.
Today, we’ve arrived at the main event—a product’s approval and launch. This is a thrilling time for any organization where literal decades of work culminate, excitement and tensions run high, and the right start can propel a brand for years to come. No pressure, right?
From a communications perspective, regulatory approvals and product launches are stressful. The press release or a public announcement about any regulatory action is often the first item on an organization’s post-approval checklist. This can make PR materials feel like a proving ground on how best to present the brand to an external audience for the first time.
These are important discussions and communications should play a large role, but it’s essential to remain open to feedback and balance the needs of other disciplines. Building a base set of rules that guide the tone of a product’s “voice” is imperative to success – everything you know about brand building remains true here.
Just like how the commercial or marketing teams will develop brand guidelines to drive the consistent usage of the brand’s logo, its color palette, and creative assets, so must the PR team develop guidelines that show how and when a brand interacts with others out in the world. David Ogilvy called this “the personality of the brand.”
For any brand, this is where you can lay the foundation for your future success. It may sound cheesy, but I like to think of brands with the same approach you’d apply to method acting. When you create on behalf of a brand, you are temporarily embodying its character. Just like Tom Hanks became Forrest Gump or Harrison Ford gave life to Indiana Jones, you must understand where a brand comes from, what its motivations are, and what it wants to accomplish. Then, you can figure out how the brand will react and respond when in the marketplace. Like an Academy Award-winning performance, a pervasive understanding of the product’s intentions will drive creativity when you or others need to act on behalf of the brand.
Taking a step back from these lighthearted comparisons, let’s refocus on the essentials of a product approval. The best brand approvals and launches are won before they even happen. Interactions with regulatory authorities around a potential treatment are complicated, highly confidential, and consistently moving. There are hundreds of elements that make up a proper launch and we certainly won’t tackle them all here. However, the best communications efforts work in tandem with those overseeing a brand’s regulatory concerns in order to build more fully informed communications scenarios, which are different from regulatory scenarios.
In the first post of this series, we talked about the importance of research and understanding the audience or patient population in which you plan to introduce a treatment.
Product launch time is when we can act on those insights. With an understanding of the potential regulatory scenarios, a communications team can formulate hypotheses about how the community will react to a particular regulatory announcement. Will they be excited? What questions will they have? Who will they go to for more information and how can you provide that information?
Once communications scenarios are set, it may be appropriate to create multiple versions of press materials. When a product approval occurs, a marketing team has just a few hours to make the announcement public. It’s important to do more work upfront in order to be able to expedite the discussions upon approval. To clarify: I am not talking solely about proactive communications, I’m talking about reactive communications, as well. Understanding the potential reactions (positive or negative) that may occur upon launch will give you a sense of the comments and inquiries you may receive. Preparing for those scenarios with reactive materials that address both the easy and tough questions will help create a foundation that could potentially serve the brand for years to come.
If an organization has done it correctly, by the time it arrives at a product approval, it already has gathered insight from and made strong inroads with the patient, healthcare providers, policy and advocacy communities. I cannot overstate the importance of spending time as a part of the community, supporting it, and learning from its members prior to launch.
When delivering something valuable to a group of people, they should first know your organization, your experts, and your principles. It’s like when a close friend messages you to invite you to a birthday party; not only are you willing to go, but you might even be excited about it.
However, coldly promoting a product to a group of people without first listening to what’s important to them feels like that old acquaintance from college who won’t stop inviting you to join in on an essential oils multi-level marketing scheme.
Tactically, both are the same, but emotionally, they feel very different. This is the key to a successful product approval and launch.
Approval to launch is a time to recognize all of the hard work that went into this milestone, to showcase the value that was provided, and to let “friends” know of the big news. Beyond sharing a press release with reporters, it may be a good idea to reach out to patient advocacy organizations with whom relationships have already been established and offer them the first information to share with their members. It may also be time to consider sending the news to the clinical investigators who participated in the trial, professional organizations that were consulted along the way, or key opinion leaders who participated in advocacy boards. Sending a note to policymakers or public affairs organizations can be a good way to open up further dialogue. Create excitement internally and recognize those employees and external parties that made it all possible. Gratitude invariably goes a long way when it comes to successful communications.
While product approvals are the first opportunity to introduce the brand, large-scale PR campaigns should be strongly integrated into a product’s launch efforts. Product launches usually occur a few months after approval and are the metaphorical debutante ball of a pharma brand. It is a perfectly manicured introduction to the world that coordinates sales, marketing, payer activities, medical communications, public relations and others. Although it is tempting to build PR-specific campaigns, some of the best planned product launches show clear collaboration between the PR and marketing teams. A great launch effort should make it impossible to tell where direct-to-consumer advertising campaigns end and the PR efforts begin.
These PR campaigns can take on infinite forms so there is little universal, tactical guidance to be found here. However, I want to share a few key steps that can help inform your launch efforts.
- First, review any insights about the audience and ground your programming on the patients. You should be worried about what the audience wants to know, not what you want to tell them.
- Have a clear sense of the objectives. Ask “what will PR accomplish?” and then ask, “what will PR accomplish that others cannot?”
- Figure out how to get the right people talking. For those who don’t understand that PR is a measured and measurable approach to achieving a product’s goals, it is often seen as a way to get “buzz.” Buzz is great, but buzz for the sake of buzz is a waste. Identify who you want to talk with and tailor your content to them.
- Build a feedback loop. If you just want to yell into the void about your product, buy a billboard. PR is powerful because it creates conversation. Mechanisms that ensure the community can provide thoughts in response to your announcement is the main difference between communications and commercial activities.
Social media is the ideal example of an instantaneous feedback loop. A product’s launch is the opportunity to build your social media foundation and roadmap. Even approaching 2022, social remains daunting for pharma brands. You don’t need to tackle everything in the first month, but having a clear sense of where you want to go, how you want to use the tools available to you, and how you will interact with the community is a tremendous start. Social media is the premiere manifestation of a brand’s personality so it’s crucial to have that perspective established early on. While this is a wild oversimplification of social strategy, here’s one key takeaway: a multi-year, evolving social strategy should be baked into your launch plan, alongside an understanding of whether your organization is built to support that strategy in the years to come.
From a PR perspective, it’s obvious product approvals and launches are filled with heavy, weighty topics that can require countless discussions and opinions. Early alignment on these decisions and a clear sense of direction can make this process more manageable and successful.
In the next post, we’ll move beyond the product launch into a discussion about the many opportunities as to how PR can build, grow, and differentiate a brand post-launch.