Part 1: Five Strategic Errors.
Note: to help you identify your own marketing errors, we have created a short marketing self-assessment. This will provide some insight on how your marketing efforts compare to those that are considered “best in class.” At the end of the assessment, you’ll be given your score and a link to a video that will help you interpret your results. There are only nine multiple-choice questions in this assessment. The assessment and the answers are free. You can take it here.
Judging from the ample evidence, it is easy to make marketing errors. During the several decades we have been working in the life sciences, we’ve seen all of the errors covered in this newsletter, multiple times. The fact that these errors are common doesn’t excuse them. On the positive side, companies that successfully address these issues will have a clear head start against their competition.
Marketing strategy and tactics
If you imagine marketing as a journey, then your strategy gives you a clear idea of the direction you will be taking. Strategy – an idea that describes a journey to a position of advantage – acts as your map and compass. In contrast, tactics are the motive force that powers your journey – the tools and techniques you use to implement your strategy.
This month we’ll focus on the strategic errors we see in the marketing of life science companies. Next month, we’ll cover the common tactical errors.
Strategic marketing errors
Judging from their prevalence, strategic errors are easy to make, but not always easy to recognize. Apparently, just about anyone can (and often does) put too much emphasis on marketing tactics while ignoring the strategic foundation. This confusion between tactics and strategy is understandable, in part because strategic errors can be temporarily overcome through (unnecessarily) excessive spending on tactics. To give just one example, if you spend money on trade shows and email blasts and lots of advertising, you might be able to hide the fact that your marketing efforts still don’t distinguish you from your competition. While you might get plenty of leads, they might not be the right leads, and your audience’s image of you might not match up with your desired positioning.
Strategic marketing errors can have a huge impact on the success – or lack thereof – of your organization’s marketing efforts. Let’s review the common strategic marketing errors made by life science brands.
1. Lack of Uniqueness
The error: no relevant differentiation. The first and most significant strategic marketing error is this: Firms fail to understand or communicate what makes their offering unique from the viewpoint of their customers. This is an error with a large effect, because without true differentiation, buyers will believe that they have a wide variety of acceptable substitutes; in other words, your offering could well be perceived as a commodity.
Now this commoditization does not come from the fact that the life sciences are a regulated marketplace. There are entire sectors of the life sciences in which the FDA is unconcerned about marketing claims and only reviews the work product (e.g., labs, CROs and service providers that have to submit data to their sponsors and the FDA). In these cases the FDA doesn’t review specific marketing claims – but few such companies use the opportunities to say anything unique in their marketing efforts. The result is that almost everyone’s offering looks like a commodity. And even when the FDA does monitor marketing claims (for example, when marketing a pill, potion or medical device) it’s still possible to create very effective marketing efforts (e.g, Advair, Viagra, etc.). So why would you choose to look like a commodity when you don’t have to?
How to spot this error: Here’s one easy test. Examine the home page of your web site. Write down the claims you find – for example: “Our CRO delivers quality,” or “Our people make the difference.” Then write down the claims your competitors are making. If the same claims are on the two lists then your claims are not unique.
I can hear some of you saying, “But our quality really is superior.” OK, let’s imagine that your quality really is significantly better than your competition, and that your people really are better. How will you prove that to your prospects? Until they become customers, this is extremely difficult to do, particularly if you want to make the proof simple to understand quickly. And if your competitors respond by claiming the same thing (“We deliver quality. And our people are really better.”), how will your prospects ultimately be able to tell the difference? Typically, they can’t. And if they can’t tell the difference, then your offering is a commodity.
How to address this error: To fix this, you must take the hard step of figuring out what makes your offering unique and relevant from a prospect’s viewpoint. This means you have to do a good job of positioning; assessing your situation honestly, carving out an appropriate position, and then developing and spreading the messages that will make your positioning crystal clear. (To learn more about positioning, see our previous newsletters, The importance of positioning for life science companies, Vol. 1, No. 4, and Crafting a clear, effective positioning statement for your life science brand, Vol. 1, No. 6)
It is only through the development of a strong positioning that your firm will have the slightest hope of truly differentiating itself. And it is only through differentiation that you will be able to exert any control over pricing.
2. Lack of Focus
The error: a focus on your organization and offering rather than a focus on your audiences’ issues. It is no longer enough to talk about yourself; you must base your marketing on issues that are important to your audiences.
Nothing will help you sharpen your focus on your audiences’ issues faster than the difficult task of creating thought leadership. Marketing used to be a two-step process: 1) drawing distinctions between yourself and your competition, and then 2) broadcasting these to your audiences, encouraging them to choose you. The Internet has changed this process, particularly the second step. With a wider number of available options, it is easier for audiences to find suitable solutions. Power has shifted from sellers to buyers.
How to spot this error: There are many symptoms that point to this condition. One obvious one: firms put their focus on features, not benefits. Another is the lack of any thought leadership or content marketing program, such as a newsletter or blog. Content marketing is an effective way to help your prospects, and help yourself in the process. Given the wide variety of available choices facing your prospects, thought leadership can help them choose you.
As an example, lets look at two competitors selling lab equipment. One company has articles available for free on their web site covering topics such as: “Analyzing the 3 different types of work flow in the typical lab,” and “Why throughput is a fundamentally misunderstood metric when comparing instruments.” The other company offers a very similar product. They provide no indication on their website that they understand (or care about) the issues that their customers face every day. While this evidence alone is not sufficient to determine which instrument one should purchase, which company would inspire more trust?
How to address this error: Put yourself in your customer’s shoes; what do they really care about? What challenges do they face? What changes are they confronting in the industry? Nothing will help you sharpen your focus on your audiences’ issues faster than the difficult task of creating thought leadership – valuable content that you give away for free. The effort must be sustained; you cannot create only one newsletter or a couple of blog posts. You can read more about content marketing in past issues of this newsletter:
Life Science Marketing – Comparing Content Marketing and Peer Review Publishing, Vol. 2, No. 2
The Benefits of Content Marketing Strategies to Life Science Companies, Vol. 2, No. 3
Planning Your Life Science Company’s Content Marketing Initiative., Vol. 2, No. 4
3. Lack of Competitor Knowledge
The error: not keeping track of your competition. There is a school of thought that you shouldn’t pay too much attention to your competition. If your offering is truly a valid one, you’ll attract customers. If you spend too much time worrying about what your competitors are doing, you’ll lose your focus on the relationship between your firm and your customers and prospects, according to this line of thinking.
There is some validity to this. You don’t want to be distracted by what your competitors are doing. But your potential customers will be looking hard at your competitors’ offerings. Why wouldn’t you?
How to spot the error: How often do you keep track of your competitors? Yes, you see their booths at DIA and other trade shows, but how often do you visit their web sites past the home page? Do you pay attention frequently enough to know when something has changed? When was the last time you did a written comparison of your claims to theirs?
How to address the error: As with so many strategic errors, it is not the tools, the techniques or even the resources that are the real hurdle in addressing this issue. The importance of this effort must first be recognized, and then that recognition must be acted upon. This is primarily an issue of willpower and motivation. There is no substitute for establishing and then maintaining a regular competitive monitoring program.
4. Lack of Effective Market Research
The error: performing market research with the wrong audience (or not at all). Market research can be an effective way to get feedback on your marketing initiatives, but many marketing departments ask the wrong questions or they ask them of the wrong people.
When conducting market research, make sure you ask the right people. This means you must ask your prospects, people who are your primary audience. Your suppliers, your board members or the spouse of the CEO are not your real audience, so their opinions in this sphere are irrelevant.
How to spot this error: The effects of performing market research with the wrong people or the wrong questions don’t show up directly on your website. To find evidence, you must examine your research process. How often do you seek input from your prospects? And who do you seek input from; are they truly your prospects (who are often harder to get in contact with)?
How to address the error: There are many effective ways to get feedback. Online survey tools such as SurveyGizmo or Zoomerang offer an inexpensive way to collect input. The subject of conducting effective market research is large enough that it will be the subject of a future issue of this newsletter. In the meantime, make sure you ask the right audience for their opinion. Remember that opinions from those who are not truly your prospects are much less relevant.
5. Lack of Audience Insight
The last error we’ll be discussing in this newsletter is the most obvious. Yet it is still surprisingly common.
The error: not understanding your various audiences. Understanding your various audiences is crucial if you are to market effectively to each of them.
How to spot the error: This error can be diagnosed through examining the way you describe your audiences to yourself. Do you have a written description of your various audience segments? Have you separated your audiences into different categories not only by hard criteria (job function, employer type, etc.) but also by softer criteria, such as motivations and aspirations? Have you created personas for your various audience types?
How to address the error: The issue of audience is closely related to the previous issue: market research. A focused and deliberate effort to understand your audiences will result in a clearer focus for your marketing initiatives. Creating personas for your audience requires substantial effort, but doing so will help you personalize your audience.
Fixing Strategic Errors
Fixing strategic errors usually requires more will than resources, because these errors are most commonly errors in thinking and planning, not in execution.
Strategic errors often spring from a misunderstanding of how marketing works. To learn more about this, we’ve created a short video that describes the Marketing Mechanism of Action available from the home page of our web site.
The benefits of fixing strategic errors are many, but doing so will seldom deliver an overnight surge in marketing effectiveness. Nevertheless, minimizing strategic errors is extremely important, and no long-term marketing effort can be effective without getting these issues right.
The current situation – a marketplace full of undifferentiated, commoditized offerings – represents a large opportunity. The bioscience firm that gets its marketing right will have a huge competitive advantage, if only because so few others seem to be able to avoid the strategic errors covered in this issue, and the tactical errors that we’ll cover in the next issue.
- Your marketing strategy is your marketing map and compass. It outlines where you will be going and the advantages of arriving. Your marketing tactics are the tools and techniques you use to take the journey – to execute your strategy.
- Strategic marketing errors are common in the life sciences. They are easy to make but (apparently) not always easy to recognize.
- Strategic marketing errors can have a huge negative impact on your marketing success. Strategic marketing errors can sometimes be hidden (temporarily) by an over-reliance on tactics.
- There are 5 common strategic marketing errors.
- Many offerings are not truly unique. To fix this, you must be positioned effectively.
- Many firms are focused on their own issues, not their audiences’. One way to address this is to implement a thought leadership (a.k.a. content marketing) initiative.
- Many firms do not pay enough attention to their competition. There is no substitute for establishing and then maintaining a regular competitive monitoring program.
- Many organizations perform market research for the wrong reasons, with the wrong audience, and ask the wrong questions. Make sure you ask your primary audience their opinion; others’ opinions are much less valuable.
- Many organizations have done a poor job of understanding their audiences. A deliberate effort to describe your audiences beyond a simple segmentation by title and company type will result in a clearer focus for your marketing initiatives.
- Fixing strategic marketing errors requires more will than resources.
- Fixing strategic marketing errors will seldom deliver an overnight surge in marketing effectiveness, but no long-term marketing effort can succeed without addressing these issues.