I’ve been marketing medical devices for most of my working life. Pacemakers, dialysis machines, defibrillators, patient transfer solutions, vascular therapy devices, urinary catheters – in fact you name it and I’ve probably worked with it. During this time, I have learned quite a few things and thought I’d share my top 10 list of them with you.
I will cover general marketing, distributor challenges, branding, importance of marketing working with a P&L, service portfolio management, inbound marketing, sales and marketing alignment and a few other topics. If you are more interested in other B2B businesses than medical devices, please rest assured my learnings are quite transferable to most companies and businesses with the possible exception of FMCG.
It’s a long post, so please do let me know if you’d rather have me walk you through it. If so — please drop me a message here on LinkedIn, and I will be happy to speak/chat with you!
The 10 things I've learned are:
- Most companies do marketing the same ways
- Online is gaining momentum, albeit at a slow pace
- It’s still too much about feature selling
- Distributors are treated as a necessary evil
- Corporate branding should be a priority
- A well-structured service portfolio can help differentiate the company
- Sales and marketing alignment is far from optimal
- Marketing doesn’t market Marketing
- Customer service people are potentially your best sales reps
- Marketing needs to work with a P&L
1. Most companies do marketing the same ways
What is it with medical device companies? To be rather frank about it — the marketing is fairly boring, and you’d be pressed hard to find any novel ideas that stick out. We participate in the same trade shows and congresses year after year. We keep producing brochures with glossy covers. The images normally show either a nice product shot or an extremely happy patient (e.g, who’s about to visit the restroom but with the help of the X-product, it seemingly becomes most enjoyable…) and equally happy staff (who, again seemingly, are really looking forward to prep the patient for the restroom visit…). It’s not uncommon that these images are stock image photography so you just may end up seeing the same image for a totally different product.
At the same time, internally, staff is speaking about the importance to have a good online presence, so they end up with adapting the brochure somewhat for a static web page or even just upload as a pdf.
Why is this? I have found three common answers.
First, there is a reluctance to move to new ways of communication because getting out of the comfort zone isn’t safe territory to be in.
Second, we are speaking with professionals, it is expected that we conduct our communication in a professional manner.
Third, we have to be compliant with all sort of regulations at all times, and anything new could potentially be non-compliant.
Well, getting out of the comfort zone is where you want to be. It is there you challenge yourself to come up with the things that will set you apart from competitors. And yes, we are speaking with professionals most of the time, but these people are.. well… people. They go home and are exposed to a multitude of commercial communications from companies that want them to buy lifestyle products, insurances, houses, furniture, flowers, computers and mobile phones to mention a few. It is in this universe of communications we are competing for mind space.
As for being compliant, that has to do with how you speak about your product or service and the claims you put forward. No reason you need to be the least bit out of regulatory compliance simply because you think of new ways to deliver your message in a way that resonates with the intended audience’s needs.
Read article: 5 marketing truths you shouldn't ignore
Be curious! Always be curious. How are companies in other industries building rapport with their customers? How do other industries launch their products and services, how do they utilize apps, events, printed material and how do they make them work together with sales rep activities? I have always looked at what other companies are doing, picked bits and pieces and put them together into something applicable to my present needs.
Before a major product launch, you could e.g. have a pre-launch campaign running, building awareness around an identified issue that your product will help to solve. Don’t speak about the product at first – only show concern about whatever the issue is that you plan to approach. You will likely gain quite some insight into whether the issue is viewed as important as you think and thus give you adequate time to tweak your launch messages to be more spot-on.
Why not look at how Steve Jobs launched major products at events? Then look at how other computers or phone makers launch theirs. What is it that makes the Apple launches so exciting? Can you too have a similar sort of launch? I know it’s not consumer products or even relevant for a similar amount of people but the people you are reaching out to are equally interested or perhaps even more in how you can help them help patients.
Learn more: Inbound marketing: The new approach to marketing
2. Online is gaining momentum, albeit at a slow pace
Look at the corporate web page for basically any medical device company and 9 times out of 10 at least I find them to be static, to say the least. We live in the world of Amazon, Google, Internet of Things connecting our refrigerator and burglar alarm to smartphone apps. This is the world we live in and that means me, you and customers of medical device companies alike. We are used to be able to research and compare cameras, cars, vacuum cleaners, books and so forth online. If we need help, help is available via chat, email, phone or whatever the channel of our choice may be. Now, enter the medical device company and its customer. Online dialogue? Shouldn’t think so. Read a blog? You mean a collection of press releases… Customer service online chat? Nope.
Again, normally hiding behind alleged regulatory compliance demands, many company executives would be very content with a nice-looking web site and utterly afraid of allowing anything be published without it having passed an approval route that takes some two weeks normally before being approved or rejected. A dialogue means a real-time conversation or something close to it. Approval processes can’t manage dialogues. The good thing? The clear majority of medical device companies act in the same way. The thing is, if you treat online communications the same way as when developing a brochure, you will be left hopelessly behind. If you however set processes and control systems in place that allows a more modern approach to online communications you stand a chance to come up to par with what is today’s norm for the digital residents. Make no mistake in believing digital residents to be equivalent to a bunch of gaming teenagers – a large number of the current customers are digital residents. For a better explanation of what constitutes a digital visitor and resident I suggest you read Visitors and Residents: A new engagement typology for online engagement by David S. White and Alison Le Cornu. In short, they propose:
“We propose that Visitors understand the Web as akin to an untidy garden tool shed. They have defined a goal or task and go into the shed to select an appropriate tool which they use to attain their goal. Task over, the tool is returned to the shed. It may not have been perfect for the task, but they are happy to make do so long as some progress is made. This is important, since Visitors need to see some concrete benefit resulting from their use of the platform.” … “Residents, on the other hand, see the Web as a place, perhaps like a park or a building in which there are clusters of friends and colleagues whom they can approach and with whom they can share information about their life and work. A proportion of their lives is actually lived out online where the distinction between online and off–line is increasingly blurred. Residents are happy to go online simply to spend time with others and they are likely to consider that they ‘belong’ to a community which is located in the virtual.”
Learn about inbound marketing and use an online presence to execute inbound marketing. To learn more about inbound marketing I suggest you read: What is inbound marketing?
Start a blog. You’d be amazed at the interest you will attract if you do it right. The one thing to remember is to have a very clear customer focus. Don’t try to sell or market your products or services – solve or invite to discuss real customer issues. If you try to sell it will be just like any other advertising and thus visitors will quick enough turn elsewhere. Select a few, two or three, rather narrow customer types that you really want to reach. If you do your homework properly you should be aware of what it is that these people want to do better, what their concerns are or what trends they are interested in. Provide your take on the subject and provide some insight that they can learn something new and valuable from. End with a call-to-action (which is not to buy your products) such as click to download a white paper with more in-depth analysis.
Read article: How to create a successful life science blog
Keep publishing. At least twice a week. Make sure people can subscribe to your blog and opt out when they want to. You wouldn’t return to e.g. the NY Times site if the front page looked the same for two weeks, would you? You have so much knowledge in your organization that a whole lot of people are interested in. You can only gain by sharing your knowledge. Eventually a couple of your visitors will be happy enough that you have helped them become better at what they do or have simplified their lives so they will do business with you.
The one hurdle you are likely to encounter is developing content for the blog. Be calm. The content is already there. Just needs to be edited in a fashion that is tailored to your audience and their needs. Customer stories can be rewritten in a suitable way, relevant studies can be explained, interviews “behind the scenes” with your R&D, finance, customer service and operations people to allow people to get to know you better. And finally, when published, make sure to promote the post via all relevant social media so the word can spread.
Finally, on this subject of inbound marketing and online presence, don’t expect results to come in straight away. Usually, it takes minimum half a year but likely closer to a year before you see things happening so you need to stay on course and have some endurance. Upside being that once it spins off, it just keeps growing and growing, as long as you nurture your audience’s interests. It’s not about straight forward selling – it’s about building relations and that just takes some time.
3. It’s still too much about feature selling
How many times have you tried to explain your product’s superiority over whatever the competitors offer? Have you tried to do it with showing features that the others don’t offer? Do you consider it successful If so – congratulations. You have a feature that people value high enough to choose your product, at least until others replicate that feature or even do something that is better than what you have. There usually comes a point when adding another feature is just overdoing it. Over-engineered products constitute the downfall of many companies and yet they are so common.
What if you really understood what the value is that the feature is to deliver? Because, after all, if you add another feature without understanding the value the customer/user will perceive, what’s the use? If you know the value, you can communicate about the value, not only for one product at a time but rather for the entire portfolio, maybe even for the company as a whole if that is the company’s purpose to achieve. Say, you are really all about, like Volvo Trucks and Volvo Cars, to make safe driving solutions available. Thus, all products should first most focus on safety. Then, you may explain some features and these better be there to add on to the safety focus. People will understand intuitively why you added the feature and perhaps they won’t care so much about ait as they will care about the overall concept of safety. You won’t have to wait until the next big product launch before starting up your new communication campaign as you can always communicate on your value focus.
Same thing in medical devices. You may decide to focus on e.g. preventing pressure ulcers. Then you can emphasize that much more than the specific features on a single product. You can show your commitment by hosting pressure ulcer prevention seminars, sponsoring investigator initiated studies, put together an advisory committee with that focus, start up an educational program, work to have your most prominent medical advisors lecture at med schools and so forth.
Next time you launch a new pressure ulcer prevention product, customers will see it as a logic step and since you seemingly are so devoted to this issue, chances are good that you will now have customers that are willing to at least try and possibly purchase your new product more than a competitor product.
You see, in my world, most products are commodities. The few that aren’t will eventually become so. Products are not and will not be the way to differentiate your company and its offerings. A true focus on an issue that customers decide is important may set you apart. The more you stay focused and deliver operational evidence as well as communicate in a focused manner, the more you will realize that that is what is creating a competitive edge. An edge that cannot easily be replicated or exchanged. It’s about knowledge. It’s about the collective knowledge that resides in your organization, that if harnessed and shared will define your company and its brand. If you go out of business tomorrow – what will your customer lose? The products? Easily exchangeable. A partner in solving a complex issue or someone that strives to obtain a higher goal with a purpose that you share? Then – very hard to replace!
4. Distributors are treated as a necessary evil
When dealing with devices that don’t fall into the capital goods category, it’s not always positive words that comes to mind when such medical device manufacturers speak about their distributors and wholesaler. They’re mostly seen as a necessary evil to get the products into the end users’ hands, not adding value and even taking a part of the margin, an incredibly high amount according to some. And, even worse perhaps, they are anything but loyal to manufacturers! In some countries, distributors are gaining more and more control of the customers or end-users by having proprietary customer databases which they obviously don’t willingly share with manufacturers. They, distributors, also bid in public tenders and thus are at liberty to choose any manufacturer that can deliver products that fulfill the set criteria. Manufacturers become slowly a subcontractor to distributors.
When I took a more thorough look at how a medical device company (not mentioning which one…) could exercise some control over distributors I found myself at a loss for any viable solutions. I also looked at what we were doing FOR them and again found myself at a loss but for another reason. We didn’t do much at all for them, mostly for the end customers and plenty of other stakeholders but very little or anything at all for distributors. Yet, we spoke banteringly about their behaviour. Well, putting oneself on a pedestal to say the least… Why on earth would they be loyal? Why would they be willing to do anything at all for us when we did nothing for them? We graciously provided products for them to sell and held discussions limited to those related to the margins yet they failed to see our elevated position… Well, there’s bantering for you.
Treat distributors like your most valued customers. After all, in many cases they are, looking at revenues and volumes. What are THEIR major concerns? What keeps them awake at night and whatever other analogy you can create. Then, help them do better business, help them to an easier life. It could be increased transparency of your supply chain. It could be ERP integrations. It could be something completely different. You need to have customer service people allocated to distributors or rather KAM’s with the purpose of serving your high volume distributors to the best of their abilities. You may have to develop a specific service portfolio dedicated to distributors – so be it – it’s likely well worth the investment. Again, it’s no more and no less complicated than understanding your “normal” customer needs and work to be able to offer them the help you can to be better off. Because – why should they care about us if we don’t care about them?
5. Corporate branding should be a priority
It’s all about the products – when it should be more about the corporate brand. Why should it? There are many reasons but I will focus on three of them.
ONE: You want to recruit people that fit into the company culture and believe in the value of its offerings. If you don’t have a crisp corporate brand – how will I, as a job seeker, know if I want to work for your company? After all, you’d rather I really want to work for you, right? And then, if you hire me, you’d like me and all other staff to share common goals so we can efficiently deliver on the strategy you designed. A well designed corporate brand can accomplish this.
TWO: Launching new products and services. When Apple launches a new product, they don’t have to tell you that it has an intuitive user interface. You simply assume it does. Why? Because they’ve built their brand consistently year over year so you already know some of the characteristics any product will have. If Disney releases a new movie, you will be fairly certain it will be family friendly (although the recently released Beauty and Beast film has been criticized by some for not adhering to their views of an ideal family film). By understanding what you are all about, how your customers and other stakeholders perceive you, and what your real overarching purpose is, you too can build a powerful corporate brand. Then, anytime you launch a new product or service brand, half the story will already be told – by your corporate brand. This obviously assumes that you stick relentlessly to only releasing products and services that strengthen your brand and push your company one step closer to its purpose.
THREE: Brand is what keeps the company abreast of new players and facilitates entering new geographies and new product areas. So, you want to enter a new country? Well, if you have had success in the markets where you are present and have consciously built your brand, chances are good that your brand will be known in the new market. A strong corporate brand will always find it easier to be granted access to the local key opinion leaders and get good deals with wholesalers and distributors and other channel partners as needed.
Kentucky Fried Chicken recently went on to open new restaurants in Sweden; they only had one in southern Sweden before. Already teenagers speak about going there on day one. They have never tasted anything from KFC before but that is not the point. They are not buying food – they are buying the brand and the brand experience. This will work for buyers of industrial or medical products and services too. They buy into your brand if it’s strong enough and resonates with the intended customers.
I believe that the most important part of any strong corporate brand is the company’s purpose.
What is a company purpose then? Harvard Business Review published a report in 2015 named “The Business Case for Purpose” in which they define it as “an aspirational reason for being which inspires and provides a call to action for an organization and its partners and stakeholders and provides benefit to local and global society.”
There are a couple of well-known companies that have focused on purpose from day one. Look at Sir Richard Branson and Virgin. Virgin does business to change the world into a good place. They don’t just say so but let actions become operational evidence of that they indeed do strive for a bigger purpose. They founded the Virgin Unite non-profit foundation which “unite people and entrepreneurial ideas to create opportunities for a better world”.
Sir Richard himself states that he personally “spend the majority of my time working with Virgin Unite to make a positive difference in the world. From supporting projects that I’m passionate about, such as being an advocate for gay rights, to drug policy reform, to using my voice and that of the Virgin Group to shine a spotlight on issues that I believe are unacceptable, such as poaching and the death penalty.” You may support his views or not but you have to agree that he takes a stand for something that is larger than company revenues and profitability. And – if people buy into his passion and purpose, which is equivalent to the Virgin Group’s, they may become fans of the company rather than mere customers. I would bet that customer retention is higher with companies that has a purpose than with those that has none.
I don’t believe it’s a pre-requisite to have a Steve Jobs or Richard Branson as the spokesperson for the company to create a sustainable purpose drive organization although it certainly helps. The Volvo brand is shared between Volvo Group and Volvo Cars and yet the Volvo brand is synonymous with safety for most people. They own safety. Without any specific person to rely on to carry their message.
So – if you haven’t yet – please define your company’s purpose that will resonate with yourself, management, staff, customers, users, investors, journalists and everyone that comes into touch with your company. It must be crisp and clear and easy to understand and again be more, much more, than the company itself. It should be something that touches people emotionally and the company must be able to provide evidence that you are striving towards that overarching purpose of yours. If you can’t find it – what will your customers lose if you go out of business? Your products...? Remember, products are or will soon be commodities anyway. No creating fans by just selling products, I assure you.
Learn more about how to create impactful value propositions
6. A well-structured service portfolio can help differentiate the company
Most companies provide a large number of services. Most also do not recognize them as services. They normally would think, “Well, of course, we deliver the products to the reseller. How else would we get onto the market?” True, but still a service. Services are equally important to products – and can create new revenue streams. All shipments, all customer service actions, tech support and other services should be quantified and structured. Even if you plan to never charge for a service you should be able to calculate its monetary value. At least, you’ll be able to know yourself. And, I would always advocate putting down the cost of service on paper or even a commercial invoice – and possibly discount the total amount with the cost of the service. Then, the customer knows the real value of what they’re buying.
When I looked through numerous service one of my employers had available I first found that no single country provided the same service portfolio to their customers. There was actually no such thing as a service portfolio to be found anywhere. Just a whole lot of services. Bear in mind this was a product manufacturer. Also, looking at these services I found that they were all designed locally, meaning that e.g. delivery services were local as well. The money we could potentially save just by centralizing some of the vendor selection to achieve some large account discounts would be anything but negligible. Logistics, designs, warehousing, educational programs and the list goes on and on with things we could deliver much cheaper if coordinated.
Make a full list of all services you provide centrally and locally. Really. All services! Then see what seems to be similar services and if there is a way to design them to deliver the same value but at a lower cost. Look at the target group for the service. If you have say four important target groups, list all services that are relevant to each of these groups. It doesn’t matter if one and the same service pops up in more than one group. You will now be able to see if you are serving your target groups in relation to their importance to you. You may now have to think about designing and implementing new services to ensure your most important customer groups get the appropriate level of service. As Michael Silverstein, Sr Partner with Boston Consulting Group puts it in Fortune Jul 08, 2015: “Woo your biggest fans”. Mr Silverstein argues that by relentlessly providing a high degree of service to your top 2% customers (that bring in 20% of sales and eventually 150% (!) of total profits, companies are on their way to create real brand apostles and financial success.
For me, in my service audit, it was very visible that we neglected our channel distributors and thus needed to develop value adding services tailored to them if we wanted them on our side.
When you’re done with the initial structuring and simplification of the service portfolio you may want to think about yet another way of structuring them. You may have different level brands, a value-for-money brand and a premium brand for instance. Then, I propose to design a brand specific service portfolio, one set of services for each brand. The value-for-money brand should have a rather scarce set of basic services with the lowest possible cost of delivery (customer service only through online perhaps) and the premium brand the most premium services (such as your personal customer service representative, first access to new stories, invitations to advisory groups, etc.). There are multiple ingenious ways to structure your services, commercial and free-of-charge services alike. Please do share some of your own thinking or experiences at the bottom of this page!
7. Sales and marketing alignment is far from optimal
One of the first things I did when I started with one of my latest employers was to have a casual dinner with each of the country managers. It was a good chance to get to learn their view of how marketing functioned. I encouraged them to speak freely (which I later understood, they would’ve done anyway as that was the spirit of the company. Very positive revelation!). Most of them agreed that marketing was one function and sales another. Completely. Marketing was developing brochures and other sales aids and markets then developed their own stuff because the central materials simply didn’t work for them. There was little cooperation or alignment. Unfortunately, I don’t believe this is too uncommon. Now, I managed to turn this around and create a much better cooperation between marketing and sales and it wasn’t rocket science involved. Face-to-face meetings and listening more than speaking is what made the difference, as I see it.
The first thing I needed to realize and implement in marketing was that marketing and sales are working together towards the same objectives. Sounds too easy and obvious? Perhaps, but still many companies have marketing and sales departments that strive unaligned and thus sub-optimizing the grand total of their efforts.
Today, when marketing is upholding a dialogue with customers through its online presence it is imperative that it’s a combined effort. If a rep goes to see a customer and learns first then what the customer has been discussing with your company, through any online channel, then of course the rep will be slightly embarrassed and also angry with those marketers that have been communicating with his/her customer without the rep knowing about it. Rightly so! That’s why we have a CRM to help sharing customer interactions between all that communicate with any customer. Utilizing your CRM system in a good way means that any time a customer downloads a document from your web site, anytime the customer tweets something to your company and any other interaction shall always be put into the CRM system. Then, it’s easy enough for the rep to check what the customer has been up to since the previous visit and possibly tailor the new meeting in a constructive way that addresses what issues the customer may have depending on the online interactions in between meetings. That’s one thing. CRM systems should be used to facilitate sales and marketing coordinated efforts.
Another thing is to co-create and co-schedule marketing initiatives. If the sales organization works with sales cycles, then marketing should develop campaigns and initiatives accordingly. The themes to be addresses in the various cycles should be developed together.
And, the easiest of them all, marketers – get out visit customers! Easy, but for many certainly out of the comfort zone. Yet, so important it cannot be overstated. As a marketer, you are there to understand customers, to communicate with them, help them and build relations with them. How else, if you don’t actually meet with quite a few in person, will you ever be trusted by Sales to develop the “right” stuff?
8. Marketing doesn’t market Marketing
Market marketing! Marketing is usually one of the first to have its budget cut when companywide cuts are needed. Why? I believe it has much to do with that we are poor at market ourselves internally. If your management team doesn’t fully understand the value you bring to the table, why should they care about you getting your budget cut?
You need to, preferably together with your CEO, CFO and VP Sales agree on the metrics that are important. A thousand or so likes on Facebook probably won’t meet with much approval. A hundred new customers originating out of your inbound marketing activities is likely a better choice of metrics to track and report. Combine that with the customer lifetime value calculations and you will be speaking about real quantifiable numbers that resonates with most C-level executives.
Quantitative data should always be at the forefront to ensure executive buy-in and possibly reducing the risk of the axe hitting your budget the hardest. It should show clearly how marketing initiatives relate to revenues and / or profitability. Also, if you indeed are one of the few purpose-driven companies, you should certainly measure some more qualitative data as well. Data that can be used to measure how well you measure up if held against what you claim to have as your raison d’être.
In addition, I suggest a simple way to enhance the perception of marketing is to publish a newsletter or internal blog that highlights marketing initiatives that are in development, results from activities, updates as to successful combined sales and marketing efforts. The more people know what you are up to the better off you are.
9. Customer service people are potentially your best sales reps
If you have a customer service department you may find yourself belonging to the majority of companies that overlook customer service staff as some of the best sales reps you have on-board. This is a short one. It’s fairly simple. The amount of time your customer service people spend with your customers is significantly more than the time the sales reps do. The CS reps gets to discuss issues that the customers bring forward. They get to know the customer pain points. They work only to service and help the customer resolving issues. They’re potentially the best sales reps you have, albeit with a different title.
Why then don’t we incentivize the customer service people in a way similar to that system we have for sales reps? What if they also were able or allowed to up-sell and cross-sell? And get the sales bonus for it? At least they should be able to provide leads to sales reps and if the deal comes through, they should get their share of it. Imagine customer service, sales and marketing working together as one! What a great thing that would be.
Now, this would require enhanced training of the CS staff as for brand positioning and brand messages to ensure one voice. Is it presumptuous to also mention that CS is one of the most valuable sources of voice of customer? Yet, so sparsely used. I think it’s time for the customer service department to receive its recognition and be appropriately utilized now! Today.
10. Marketing needs to work with a P&L
Viewed as a cost-centre, Marketing gets, as said above, its budget cut pretty much before any other department. Marketing must thus start working with its own P/L. One way to attribute revenues to marketing is to follow online generated leads all the way to sales. It’s not efficient nor very useful to try to split these revenues between what goes to sales and what to marketing. It’s more about understanding the revenues marketing brings to the company, i.e. quantifiable returns. Were it not for marketing, these revenues would not be there. Were it not for Sales, these revenues would not be there. Why split the two?
Another way for marketing to bring more business to the company is to analyse and explore growth opportunities in existing markets through a granular growth analysis. The actual exploration and realization of such opportunities must however again be done by sales and marketing in unison. Sales must allocate sales resources and marketing must define the opportunities spot on and tailor messages and offerings to the opportunities. One without the other simply won’t cut it.
As a McKinsey report published on Forbes states: Growth opportunities are often hidden in averages. Granular growth analysis, be it geographic or demographic, can detect unclaimed value. Investing in these areas often generates double-digit sales growth, even in seemingly saturated markets.
You may decide to run your own seminar, design and develop a new educational program or anything else. Just make sure to build in some KPI’s from the start, aiming at measuring the end results as they relate to revenues and profitability.
End of story. Hope you enjoyed it and thank you so much to all that actually managed to read all the way down to this sentence! I am happy, humbled and grateful. Any likes, comments or shares are also very much appreciated. Again – Thank You.
About the author: Pontus Rehn has worked in senior marketing positions at a number of companies throughout Europe and is today a Senior Marketing Strategist at UP THERE, EVERYWHERE, the global cloud based agency.