Sample Controversy

How long will the US drug industry be allowed to utilize samples as part of the marketing mix?  Ok, I am going for a little shock here to capture everyone’s interest, but we need to carefully plan for what would replace samples if they no longer were legal or accepted by our physician customers.

I remember a few years ago being asked to take a look at a launch budget and comment on the vulnerable parts.  After complementing the marketing execute for a solid plan, I kiddingly asked what would would happen if the “reminder” items were no longer allowed.  The marketer had a significant amount set aside, as did almost every marketing plan in our industry at that time, for pens, pads and other reminders.  I was “tuned in” to the minority voices about these type of items and personally was a little turned off by every restaurant and gas station I visited having drug company pens for their clients to use.  When PhRMA eliminated these items in the most recent guidelines, I got the call asking how I could have known this was going to happen.  I truly thought it was a long shot and was just being controversial.  I see the same type of rumblings happening now about drug samples.

The recently released “Cegedim” report discussed in American Medical News shows that over the last four years the industry has cut back significantly on the samples given to physicians.  We all know there are roughly 30% fewer reps in the field, but the surprise may be that there has been a decrease of 25% of total samples distributed by industry and 35% decrease in details with samples.  This may not be overly shocking given some of the blockbusters going generic, but it does seem to be a significant trend.

The more disturbing numbers in the report are that 23% of offices won’t see reps and 23% of offices do not allow samples.  Large group practices are even more likely to forbid drug samples in their practice and two-thirds of medical schools severely restrict their use.  The higher the level of medical care, the less likely it seems that physicians want to use drug samples.  This is a somewhat alarming trend, and in some ways counters the argument that samples are so valuable for patients.

As a marketer, this could be viewed as either a problem or a research opportunity.  A few years ago I was kidding somebody who had the state of Indiana as part of his responsibility about how easy it must be with their more open physician access and “gentler” managed care.  He was quick to remind me that it was easy for everyone, not just his company, which really made the environment just as tough as say Minnesota where the opposite type environment exists.  So going back to samples, since the doctors accept no samples from anyone, the playing field is equal for all companies.

I would love to know how the prescribing differs between offices that do and do not accept samples.  Do they use more generics?  Older drugs?  Are they slower to adopt new therapies?  I would assume there is a heavy overlap of offices that don’t see reps and those that don’t accept samples, but these cohorts should be looked at separately.

After the research is in, the fun should really begin.  What can you do to impact the prescribing of these “no see, no sample” offices.  Can DTC be pulsed in their area?  How about a heavy influencer program?  Almost anything in the marketing mix may be the answer.  The key is to find the formula faster than your competitors.  This is what makes marketing so challenging and why it is such an important profession.

So what if samples go away?  My bet is the industry will definitely survive just as we did with the elimination of reminder items.  Like with so many other market changers, those who look ahead and do scenario planning will gain competitive advantage when the unexpected happens.  Even if samples remain, it still is critical to find what works for the growing 23% of the providers who don’t want samples as part of their world.

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