The Lasting Impact of COVID-19 on U.S. Pharma Marketing

November 10, 2020 Regina Shanklin

What to incorporate into your marketing plans now

It is now clear that COVID-19 and its recessionary impact are not going away in the near-term. Even with today’s vaccination efforts, we may not be out of the woods yet. On a positive note, today we are more prepared to handle the impact of any future waves of infection. So with this said, how do we move forward as pharma marketers to ensure that we remain relevant and effective to our key customers, patients, and healthcare providers (HCPs)? What should we incorporate in our plans to help them get the information and resources they need to positively impact patient outcomes in health conditions beyond COVID-19?

This article will explore the topline market shifts that are expected to have lasting effects on U.S. pharma marketing and provide suggestions on how to evolve marketing plans to best address these shifts.

What are the key consumer dynamic market shifts caused by COVID-19?

From an overall consumer dynamics standpoint there are four key shifts:

  1. Cash Conservation
  2. Being Prepared
  3. Becoming Homebodies
  4. Becoming More Safety-Conscious

Let’s take a closer look at each shift.

1. Cash Conservation

With unemployment at an all-time high and amid the growing uncertainty of job security, consumers have switched into cash conservation mode and are basically only buying the essentials they need. Major purchases and medical procedures that can be delayed are being delayed. In addition to just taking care of the essentials, consumers are shopping for value. There is a shift to buying more store brands versus buying major brands. The loyalty to major brands has also been hampered by COVID-19 shortages of these branded products, thus forcing consumers to try other brands that they would not have otherwise tried simply because they are the only items available for purchase. It is expected that this shift will have a lasting negative effect on brand loyalty once COVID-19 has subsided.

2. Being Prepared

Consumers are making sure they are well-stocked in case they need to hunker down at home and ride out another wave of COVID-19. This hoarding has caused major shortages and price gouging across key necessities, such as:

  • Toilet paper
  • Paper towels
  • Hand sanitizers/wipes
  • Cleaning products
  • Personal protective equipment
  • OTC medication for COVID-19 type symptoms
  • Meat products
  • Pasta, etc.

In addition to the hoarding, the supply chains for these products are being compromised by COVID-19 outbreaks that have slowed production.

3. Becoming Homebodies

Outside of healthcare workers and essential workers, mostly everyone who can work from home is working from home. People are having to balance home-schooling their kids with getting their work done, and they are also cautious about engaging in their usual out-of-home activities, such as going to the gym, eating in restaurants, going to the movies, going to the hair salon/barbershop, etc. Even as states open up after their shut-downs, these activities have declined. People are in a wait-and-see mode until there is a vaccine or there is no appreciable second wave of the virus. In becoming homebodies, consumers have driven the following shifts:

  • Shift to binge watching and online streaming
  • Increased shopping online
  • Doctor’s visits via telemedicine
  • Growth of gaming through video games
  • Travel limited to car travel—avoiding public transportation
4. Becoming More Safety-Conscious

When consumers venture out of their homes to shop for goods or services, many are looking for businesses that have visible safety measures such as screening processes for customers and employees for COVID-19, enhanced cleaning and physical barriers. This is just as true for a retailer as it is for a dentist or doctor’s office—probably more so for a dentist or doctor’s office due to the increased chances of exposure in those venues. The actions taken by businesses that show they care about the safety of their customers during this crisis are likely to be remembered long after the COVID-19 crisis is over and should increase loyalty.

How do these major shifts in consumer dynamics apply to the pharma industry?

You may be wondering why understanding the top COVID-19 driven consumer dynamics shifts is important to the pharma industry. That’s because everyone is a consumer regardless of also being a patient or HCP. What drives people in their personal lives will carry over into their attitudes and actions in healthcare. People never stop being a consumer, but they can turn off being a patient or HCP when that role is not necessary. Let’s delve into how these four consumer dynamic shifts impacts healthcare.

Cash Conservation and Becoming More Safety Conscious are the two consumer dynamic shifts that have hit HCP revenues hard in the era of COVID-19. With high unemployment and job uncertainty combined with wanting to limit their exposure to people who may have COVID-19, patients are postponing what they consider non-essential healthcare, which includes routine wellness visits. A study by McKinsey and Company showed an 80% drop in patient volume in April 2020. As a result, pharma has seen a decrease in new prescriptions (NRx), which shows that patients are putting off looking after their non-COVID-19 health concerns.

As the country has gotten past the worst of COVID-19, patients are starting to go back to their doctors for their routine visits; however, it is not back to pre-COVID-19 levels. HCPs need to reassure patients that they have protocols in place that limit the patient’s exposure. I have personally seen HCPs list out protocols of what patients must do that protect the HCP and their staff from contracting COVID-19, but they don’t go into what they are doing to protect their customer, the patient, from contracting COVID-19. For instance, did they put in additional air filtration systems in their offices and extra cleaning protocols put in place, or are they using hand sanitizer or putting on clean gloves in front of the patient before the exam? This one-sidedness needs to change if HCPs want to get more of their patients back sooner, since this is the key driver of why patients are reluctant and slow to come in for their needed wellness visits.

In addition to patients being safety conscious, so are HCPs in wanting to limit themselves, their employees, and their patients to contact with others. Especially those in pharma sales who would come in contact with a lot of people while making in-person sales calls. Because of this a significant number of pharma sales calls have gone digital. COVID-19 has only accelerated this trend that was already happening anyway, and the practice of limiting sales professionals’ personal access to HCPs will most likely continue. Not only does it have a social-distancing benefit, but it also allows the HCP to stay focused on their practice and patients during regular business hours. This makes mastering non-personal promotion key for the pharma industry.

Being Prepared is an interesting consumer dynamic that can help HCPs increase patient visits. COVID-19 has caused patients to feel out of control. Hoarding which comes under the Being Prepared consumer dynamic is just a sign of wanting to be in control and not having a situation control you. People don’t know who has COVID-19 and when and if they are going to get it from an asymptomatic person. However, they can better control their own health to even the odds, so that if they do get COVID-19, it will not be as severe or life threatening. This is a great opportunity for HCPs and pharma to stress getting high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, and other conditions under control. Furthermore, the mental health impact of COVID-19 should not be neglected. Another casualty of COVID-19 is the increased rates of suicide and domestic violence. HCPs and pharma need to continue to raise awareness that taking care of one’s mental health is as important as your physical health.

The consumer dynamic of Becoming Homebodies has caused a revolution in telemedicine. As of April 2020, 85% of HCPs are supplementing their appointments with telemedicine, and 73% expect it to continue telemedicine post-COVID according to a physician study by the DHC Group. Telemedicine is here to stay and a great way to have follow up visits with the HCP and keep a patient’s healthcare on track at the convenience and safe-distancing of the patient’s own home. Though older patients may continue to need support in using telemedicine since they are not digital natives, pharma can help provide tools to ensure successful telemedicine visits.

What needs to be incorporated in pharma marketing plans now?

In order for pharma to continue to successfully market to HCPs and patients they need to become very adept at remote engagement through digital marketing and digital platforms.

Pharma has quickly pivoted from “boots-on-the-street” to virtual sales call during COVID-19. However, mastering remote engagement will provide a competitive advantage because “boots-on-the street” with samples in the car will not be coming back in a big way post-COVID-19. A report by Reuters Events and EY, Beyond COVID-19: Pharma Reimagined, states that 69.5% of industry respondents anticipate HCPs will prefer fewer to no face-to-face interactions post-COVID-19, and 81% expect face-to-face access to HCPs will become more difficult post-COVID-19. With the reduction in in-person access, pharma needs to provide a turn-key way for HCPs to have access to samples. For that reason, sampling programs should move online and be self-service.

Since every pharma company has integrated virtual calls into their call plan, HCPs are now inundated with digital information. To be memorable and stand out from competition, the brand content must be relevant. Do not fall into the one-size fits all trap. Gain an understanding of what the HCP wants from your brand and how they want to receive it. Personalization at scale is the strategy that should be employed. In order for sales professionals to become as good at remote engagement as they are with in-person engagement, they need training on virtual platforms, building virtual relationships, digital communication forums, and remote event management. Sales professionals need to become adept at non-personal promotion, remote detailing, e-meetings, webinars and email. They need to understand where to engage, through what channels and why. There is an upside to the virtual approach versus in-person sales calls. There is less travel time and more flexibility. If non-personal promotion is done right, there is an opportunity to reach more HCPs more often with relevant information.

Another way sales professionals can differentiate their value is through supporting HCPS in their care of patients through easing the transition to a more technology-driven practice. This is especially important for older non-digital native patients. Pharma can play a role in making the transition to telemedicine less painful by supplying tools, interfaces, and platforms. PwC reports that 50% of HCPs want virtual patient support programs. They want digital tools to share with patients such as video resources to send to patients that explain the disease/condition in laymen’s terms.

In addition to the tried and true consumer/patient omni-channel tactics of Direct-to-Consumer (DTC) advertising, there is a real opportunity to help HCPs help their patients. This can be done through enhancing patient assistance programs and adherence programs. In effect creating a circle of care portal around the patient which could include:

  • Payer integration and specialty pharmacy integration
  • Patient disease education and onboarding those new to treatment on what to expect
  • Patient assistance programs/co-pay cards to ease the financial burden
  • Patient personal care network, including caregiver tips and support, support groups, advocacy groups, and community-based health resources

Based on the impact COVID-19 has had on patients, revisiting and revising the patient journey is necessary. This will ensure that the brand is providing the needed information in the right format at the right time. This will help ensure that the patient is educated and empowered to speak with their HCP about treatment options. This can include:

  • Downloadable patient materials and videos that can be easily shared in a live or virtual HCP visit
  • Telemedicine-friendly doctor locators
  • Video or chat-based tips from patient influencers that have been successful on therapy

The last marketing area that will be addressed is conferences and congresses. It is not expected that these will be in-person events until there is a readily available vaccine or highly effective approved therapies to treat COVID-19. So for the first half of 2021 at least, these types of events will continue to be largely virtual. These types of events are high-tech in nature so including augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) to enhance the virtual booths and virtual poster session could be a key differentiating feature. VR is a great way to bring the mechanism of action alive, and AR can enhance the experience so that it makes the participate feel that they are actually in the booth. Once the country reopens large events, people will still be germ-conscious and not wanting to unnecessarily touch high-contact surfaces. Proximity sensors and touchless panel navigation should be considered to replace touch-screen panels in addition to having hand sanitizers readily available.


COVID-19 has accelerated shifts in the industry that were already happening such as limiting sales professionals access to HCPs, the increased use of telemedicine and the increased use of digital marketing. Embracing these shifts and fully leveraging the opportunities they provide are keys to success in 2021 and beyond. However, being cognizant of remote engagement fatigue is paramount. Keep in mind that everyone is engaging the HCP and patient digitally. In order to stand out the content has to be relevant and timely to fit the evolving customers’ journeys. Employing personalization at scale is key to increasing content relevancy.

The post-COVID-19 future is uncertain and still evolving. Marketers need to keep up with new market trends and rapidly adapt. While uncertainty is uncomfortable, these will prove to be exciting times as marketers rise to the challenge of embracing new opportunities that arise.

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About the Author

Regina Shanklin

RD Shanklin & Associates is a healthcare & life sciences marketing strategy consultancy focused on driving profitable growth through enhancing customer insights, strategic & tactical planning, marketing and commercial strategy. Regina Shanklin is the founder and principal consultant for the organization. She is a marketing executive with over 20 years of delivering business results while generating strong return-on-investment (ROI). Regina has a diverse marketing background and has driven results in the Healthcare, Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG) and Advertising industries.

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