The Principles of ‘Deep Positioning’

Written by Mike Rea — 2023-03-07.

What is the difference between your molecule in phase I and the same molecule on the market? It’s a trick question: there is no difference.

The molecule won’t change from the day you take it out of the lab to the day that you put it onto the market. The only difference between those two points is the decisions that you make and the evidence that you choose to collect. The difference between your drug and another company’s, when they do hit market? The decisions that you make and the evidence that you choose to collect.

This is the basis for early phase positioning, and it is one that everyone acknowledges – that if you give the same molecule to two different companies when they leave pre-clinical, there is little chance that they’d end up in the same place on market. The molecule, whichever hands you put it in, will do the same thing forever - biology and chemistry won’t change. But no-one launches molecules - they launch products.

The process of developing your molecule as a solution to a problem - finding a position in the market that it can occupy – is positioning. It is deep, meaningful positioning.

Strategic choices early in the process need to be proactive – back casting from a future market opportunity and regulatory approval brings questions back to the molecule. The molecule itself does not contain all the answers that a product needs to provide.

Some 50 years ago, a series of articles by Ries and Trout began to promulgate the idea that positioning is ‘what happens in the mind of the customer.’ According to them, positioning is not what you do to a product, it is what you do to the mind of the ‘prospect’. That is, you position (place) your product in the mind of the ‘prospect’. Since that time, positioning has been the technique in which marketers try to create an image or identity for a product, brand, or company in the perception of the target market. And so it has remained, unquestioned by many who failed to understand its consumer-oriented origins.

The idea has its merits. But it is also incredibly limiting. It starts with the view that the product already exists, and your job is to find a way to make people want it. After all, if it’s just about perception, or image or identity, well we might as well continue what we’re doing: let R&D decide on our product, its comparators, its functional positioning and its benefits, and then just develop an ad campaign telling our ‘prospects’ that it’s best in class, to give patients ‘freedom to be who they want to be’, ‘more time’ or one of the other taglines… 

This, unfortunately, is positioning as done by most. So much reverence for the positioning statement, as if the statement itself carried any value (one management consultancy even goes so far as to market ‘test’ the statement in quant research). 

What is missing from that philosophy is clear. The strategy is what comes before there is a product, (including choices of indication, dose, formulation, endpoints, value proposition, etc.). That is Deep Positioning.

Deep Positioning is, or should be, everything you do. It’s a set of decisions that you make, early enough to actually change the product you end up launching. Applied correctly, you don’t have to worry about which ‘mind’ you’re talking to in your customer group – the regulator, the payor, the patient, the prescriber – because you have actually positioned your product in clear valuable space where they all get the same value. Cymbalta isn’t one of the best positioned drugs in pharma because of its statement, but because of a set of very brave decisions made before phase II – the decisions that influenced its phase II, without which there’d be no Cymbalta as we know it.

Deep Positioning, done well, is something that every single person developing a product should be able to deliver. It should be tangible in the label, not just hinted at in the detail aid. It is not about what you can say now, but what you want to be able to say in the future.

So, why is the Ries and Trout approach to positioning ‘problematic? Well, the idea that marketers can position any old thing perpetuates a dangerous mindset in pharma. The statistic runs that only one in four launched drugs returns its own investment to its originator, a situation perpetuated by the old thinking. For example, at the peak of the ‘statin wars’, Pravachol spent a fortune on TV and in print on promotion, all of which drove Lipitor scrips.

You already know you’re in a dangerous spot when you’re asked to position a drug that’s in phase III – apart from the statement and the messages, the room for manoeuvre has gone, the label (the hymn sheet from which you can sing, as a marketer) is all but written. For as long as marketers accept this state of affairs, they’ll always be limited to the detail aids and ads with patients staring into sunsets or running down beaches, or held in a perfect balance of efficacy and safety. Products, in this model, will continue to be effectively deep positioned by R&D and then thrown over to marketers to polish the ‘perception’. Every marketer who accepts this role diminishes the truth that ‘unmet need’ is something that marketing should be bringing to the table, that baking competitive differentiation into the product is their responsibility, that the value proposition is a critical part of successful launch.

The Ries and Trout idea keeps marketers as an afterthought at the end of the serious process of ‘following the science’, and the beginning of a phase of Sales and Marketing.

Positioning can be, has to be, something more meaningful than ‘the space in the mind of your customer that you want to occupy’. It has to be tangible, has to be built into the product, has to be real and evident in your choices. The product has to be able to justify a place on a formulary, to argue for its value at an HTA, to fight for share in a competitive landscape.

This strategic positioning, Deep Positioning, is what happens before the molecule becomes a product. Deep positioning shouldn't be an afterthought. It is a forethought, and the more thoughtful it is, the better.

IDEA Pharma

We work with clients early in lifecycle, crafting a compelling product story and building a best-in-class strategy that helps every molecule reach its potential. It’s what we do best. And there’s nobody that does it quite like us IDEA Pharma

From the blog
See all

Pfizer tops the Innovation Index in 2022

Pfizer tops the Innovation Index in 2022

Read article
Latest podcast
See all

IDEA Podcast with Mike Rea