91% of Pharmacists buy own label products. So how do OTC brands get a look in?

Ask a marketer of an OTC brand to list their top marketing objectives and chances are that driving product recommendation amongst the pharmacist team would be among the top three – and rightly so.  Despite the growing role of Dr Google, pharmacists continue to be the second most important influence, behind GPs, when it comes to people’s self-care*.

Yet in a category where own-label is likely to be a brand’s biggest competitor, how can brands motivate and make it easy for pharmacists to recommend their more expensive branded products over the generics?

A Harvard study, published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics**, makes for sobering reading.  It found that the more informed and educated people were the less likely they were to pay extra for branded products.  In fact, pharmacists buy own label brands 91 per cent of the time.

This particular stat related to a headache remedy – admittedly an exceptionally competitive category – but even when the analysis was extended across 50 health-related categories, working as a pharmacist still reduced the probability of buying branded products by roughly a fourth.  Their knowledge of active ingredients serving as the key purchase driver.

So, if brands can’t differentiate by ingredients or format, how can they cut through?

Whilst there is no silver bullet, increasingly it comes down to having the right value exchange.  Shifting the relationship from transactional to trusted by offering value and ongoing engagement.  Brands can rarely win when solely judged upon their product actives and price, but they can when they offer education, expertise and an experience, both to the pharmacists themselves, and the customers they serve.

The good news for brands is that the time for OTC to shine in the pharmacy has never been stronger.  With revenues from prescription medicines down and self-care moving up the wellness agenda, there is a real opportunity for a renewed focus to be given to OTC and along with it an important source of income.

But like any good relationship, there are a few fundamentals to get right.  Here are the top 5:

  1. Stand out from the crowd – if the brand story you are telling to pharmacists is as generic as the ingredient in your product box then you will be easy forgen.  Even to this expert audience, you need to stand-for something distinctive and then consistently and constantly reinforce it in everything you do.
  1. Communicate well and often. It may sound obvious, but for pharmacists to recommend your products they must know and trust your brand – the earlier in their professional career the better.  Yet trust is earnt not given, so ensure you have an ongoing dialogue with pharmacists and pharmacy assistants.   This need not be reliant upon an expensive paid media plan; rather think about how to articulate what your brand stands for and how this is relevant to pharmacists and their customers.  Op-eds, blogs posts, podcasts, speaker platforms and editorial features in pharmacy media are under-utilised in the OTC sector but all help differentiate your brand as an expert and a leader.
  1. Be a partner, not just a promoter – All too often, a brand will produce a piece of promotional literature to support the launch of a new product or format and there the communication starts and stops. Instead think about how you can be a true partner, adding value by enhancing condition and category understanding and the customer experience.  There are several options available: articulating the science in new ways, sharing consumer insight data, providing merchandising guidance, developing patient materials or offering training.   Ultimately, freely give and your brand will gain in return.
  1. Mind the gap – across a business, engagement with pharmacists can straddle several teams from marketing to sales and medical regulatory to shopper. Each can have a slightly different objective and message.  A coordinated effort, with ideally a single owner, is essential to maximise impact and ensure consistent message delivery.
  1. Recognise pharmacy is a team effort – pharmacy assistants are arguably the most important member of the pharmacy team when it comes to OTC products. Brand favourability established early in their careers could reap long term loyalty.  In the time poor pharmacy environment, brands can play a key role in equipping pharmacy assistants for success, through OTC training which is highly practical and easy to implement, delivered in accessible formats.

With a little sustained effort, internal collaboration and clarity of purpose, it is possible to unlock the true potential of recommendation within the pharmacy team.  And right now, there’s never been a better time for brands to re-evaluate how to deliver better stories with bigger impact to pharmacists and secure a win, win for all.

At Brands2Life we help to tell the stories of the brands that are transforming people’s health and wellbeing, inciting action to help make being healthy a habit.

Written by Emily Thomas, Health and Wellbeing Managing Director

*Bayer Consumer Health, published in OTC Bulletin, March 2018

** The Quarterly Journal of Economics (2015), 1669-1726

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