Is the time frame of brand planning holding pharma back from focusing on the future?

Lucy Ireland
Pharma long road

I was privileged to talk with Georgina Butcher, a very experienced and passionate researcher who has worked client-side for several pharmaceutical companies. She’s also played a role and continues to provide support to EphMRA.

We started our discussion with the key challenge that Georgina has seen in the space of future-focused research –  the conservative nature of pharma companies. Until now, there have been plenty of disease areas with clear scientific, unmet needs that new products could answer. Pharma’s approach to the future has always been very scientific and, arguably, short-term, focused on identifying new molecules or pathways that could be successful. Going forward, however, this approach is less sure of success, with fewer disease areas requiring treatments that will achieve a profitable patient share. It could also leave these companies ill-prepared for any unexpected, disruptive influences – from tech, for example, or even a pandemic preventing reps from seeing doctors. 

This conservatism is exhibited in the time frames for forecasting and, consequently, forward-looking research currently taking place within pharma companies. Georgina explained that while the timeline for early pipeline products can be five years from now, generally they are much more short term, looking at the next 12–18 months along with the decisions that need to be made. This time frame is typically driven by the funding of the market research, which often sits within the yearly brand planning cycle. 

The impact of these short time-frames is that the focus is typically on immediate needs and small, potential adjustments to the current market, rather than on exploring the bigger picture and potential futures ahead. This naturally leads to the prediction and planning process being very inward-looking – so, even with strategic brand planning, the outputs are short-term goals that don’t prepare brands for any major changes (such as unexpectedly strong trial data from a future competitor). 

Is this merely habit, driven by the human nature to focus on the easier questions of a near-future and the goals that can be achieved relatively quickly rather than tackle the state of flux and unpredictability within our industry’s medium- to long-term future?

During our discussion we tried to unpack what was driving this approach (that is common across most, if not all, of the major pharma companies). Is this merely habit, driven by the human nature to focus on the easier questions of a near-future and the goals that can be achieved relatively quickly rather than tackle the state of flux and unpredictability within our industry’s medium- to long-term future?

Georgina contrasted this approach to that of the tech companies, especially those moving into the healthcare space, who often have a very long-term focus built into their planning cycle.  She felt that this longer-term view, allowed companies to maximise all their assets – whether it is the products and services they have developed, or the data that they hold.

Interestingly, I have seen early signs that some pharma companies are starting to look more to the future, particularly those which are set up to be more agile and have, to some degree, broken out of the brand planning cycle. Such thinking includes exploring how the patient journey may change and what impact this could have on the client’s drug, or a pharma company setting itself a goal to ‘re-think how care for a disease is delivered’.

Georgina went on to observe that while pharma companies do make longer-term decisions on what to invest in, the insights team are rarely asked to gather insights for these decisions. She wondered if this is because of the often silo-nature of pharma companies and lack of effective knowledge-sharing research platforms, preventing the maximisation of knowledge and insights held in the organisation.

Having talked with other experts as well as Georgina, it is clear this could well be the case. Forward-looking foresight research is being commissioned – in particular around planning for innovations, especially digital health tools – but it is invariably the marketing teams that do the commissioning. This raises two key questions. Are insights teams equipped with the knowledge to promote this type of research as something that is really needed and beneficial for their brand? And are agencies offering this research when the objectives call for it? For example, how often are TPP-test RFPs answered with a foresight approach, rather than a traditional market research approach? Have the inaccuracies linked to using a traditional market research approach – i.e. asking doctors will you use this product? – led to a loss of faith in this type of research?

Georgina mentioned how great it would be, in an ideal world, if more research was focused on ‘blue sky thinking’ and the wider future, as this could support better decision-making for the long-term success of brands. For this to happen, however, it would be key to deliver insights in a way that is seen as cost-effective. Georgina recalled an experiment run by SmithKline Beecham when they developed a type of ‘ideas lab’, with a multi-disciplinary team set up specifically to look towards the future and define the types of products that the company should develop. This team produced a lot of ideas before being shut down due to a change of company leadership and the age-old challenge of short-termist thinking, along with what was the return on investment of this initiative?

This leaves us with two over-riding questions. Are there small changes we can make to bring a better foresight approach to our research studies, ones that can deliver these forward-looking insights within the existing funding frameworks? And should we be taking new approaches to our product profile tests and patient journeys to include the future context?

This is an important and fascinating topic, and I am committed to exploring how foresight approaches can be used to innovate forward-looking research and make a positive impact on marketing within the pharma industry.

To help stimulate new thinking, I am excited to be talking in the coming weeks with six influential experts in the healthcare space.

About Lucy Ireland

Lucy has worked in the pharmaceutical market research space for 23 years, leading research from the UK, USA and Hong Kong. She is a true multi-methodologist, having led syndicated and custom research teams as well as the development of new methodologies within quantitative and secondary research.

Lucy is passionate about innovation within the healthcare market research space. She often questions why we conduct research in a certain way to explore if there is space to innovate processes, approaches and the actual questions we ask.

Lucy started her journey in market research at Isis Research (which became Synovate Health and now Ipsos health). She then learnt a lot about what doctors talk about online at medeConnect (part of, before joining Hall & Partners in 2013.