Novartis CEO says DTC requires CPR

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Though pharmaceutical DTC marketing is a relative youngster when it comes to advertising-the Food and Drug Administration relaxed industry restrictions in 1997-Novartis Pharmaceuticals CEO Thomas Ebeling believes the model is already outdated.

Advertising Age reporter Rich Thomaselli had a chance to speak with Mr. Ebeling by phone from Novartis world headquarters in Switzerland about a change in the company's marketing philosophy that began with its awareness campaign for high blood pressure last month.

AA: The "Take Action for Healthy Blood Pressure" initiative is an unbranded campaign to bring awareness to the problem, but the money-back-guarantee component is for use of Novartis products only and is very similar to tactics that a package-goods company might use. Will we see Novartis adopt this type of advertising and abandon what we know as traditional DTC marketing?

Mr. Ebeling: We're in an interesting phase right now. The old model is valid, and has merit, but as we see patients getting increasingly empowered and knowledgeable, we have to reflect this. In addition, there are changes in the marketplace that make pricing a critical sector, so we have to have more people understand classical, fast-moving consumer tactics.

AA: Package goods appeal to someone's tastes and preferences. They can speak to a consumer. So can you, but your industry has a third party who is often the decision-maker, and that's the physician.

Mr. Ebeling: What is important for us, what we want to do differently, is ultimately help connect patients and physicians. What we do for all of our brands is dig deep and understand really what is motivating physicians, what is motivating consumers, and we're finding a disconnect between what patients and physicians think. Our new approach is to try to connect the two groups, and then connect them to our brands. We have to get the physicians to manage patients better. We have to educate and motivate the patients better. We'll definitely continue to inform the physicians with our sales representatives, but we're trying to become more sophisticated with the patients.

AA: What other kind of changes might we expect?

Mr. Ebeling: More thematic promotions. There are a lot of seasonal products in the industry. With Elidel (Novartis prescription medication for eczema), for instance, you could have a nice promotion for winter, something along the lines of being free of flare-ups. I think you'll see more value-oriented promotions and more comparative advertising.

AA: What does that mean for spending?

Mr. Ebeling: I don't see a reduction as far as investments in brands. You will see a slight increase in spending.

AA: You have talked about how Novartis is hiring people from Procter & Gamble, Pepsi and other well-known companies, even if they have little to no pharmaceutical experience. What is your goal?

Mr. Ebeling: These are some of the best marketers in the world and, yes, we are hiring people from those types of companies, even at the junior level. This industry needs to learn from other industries how to market its products.

AA: Will this new emphasis on a more package-goods style of advertising carry over or be drastically different in the Hispanic market?

Mr. Ebeling: When I compare the campaigns we use in Latin America, there is a different touch to it. I think the touch is probably more in lifestyle-oriented features. It's more upbeat, more physical, the advertising. The bottom line is, you have to start with your brands and see what kind of creative tactics support the brand. But we should not limit ourselves to typical DTC promotions or campaigns. We should explore everything from thematic promotions to packaging.

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