By Drew Desjardins
EVP, Chief Strategy Officer

You’ve just accepted the most exciting role in your career – to launch your company’s promising Phase III rare disease drug candidate. So many things race through your mind, from the clinical trial program through the launch readiness plan. And then you stop. How will you differentiate your new brand from your competition so that you can win in a competitive market? How will you position your brand to set it up for success? Everyone you talk to will have an opinion. Virtually everyone will start with the unique clinical data set, mechanism of action, or route of administration. Surely those things will set you apart from your competition and position your brand to win. But before we can determine which of these approaches to positioning would work best, we need to define what winning in a rare disease market actually means. It’s very simple: Although revenue generation is the ultimate measuring stick for any brand, in a rare disease market revenue is a by-product of a strong brand experience that leads to brand choice.

Consider rare disease category nuances

Let’s begin by looking at the nuances of rare disease categories. Rare disease markets are different from primary care mass markets. Often there are few competitors, perhaps only one, chasing a few thousand patients. Those competitors will also have elegantly conceived MOAs and may be the first solution that HCPs and patients have been waiting decades for. Even with such pent-up demand, identifying patients may be challenging but is critically important to brand success. Patient advocacy groups typically do not endorse brands, but they can give off subtle signals to their members about the authenticity and motivations of manufacturers. The conversations that take place between HCPs and patients or caregivers are often dramatically different from those that take place regarding common illnesses due to a lack of clear diagnostic pathways or proven therapies. These differences can lead to a host of emotions expressed by both parties that we don’t usually see with common diseases, such as fear, frustration, or resignation.

Identify the defining customer insight

With rare disease brands it is vital to start positioning work by thinking about patients and then consider HCPs and other stakeholders. This may seem counterintuitive as pharmaceutical sales and marketing has primarily been targeted at healthcare professionals since they are ultimate decision makers. But understanding the defining customer insight and building your positioning around it can make or break your brand. Deriving customer insights is not easy and may require a bit of courage. Because customers will not or may not be able to articulate what is underlying their beliefs during market research, we must infer these things. Although everything else we do as marketers is based on data, insights are based on interpretation. Yet, this process holds the key to determining our brand’s unique selling proposition because insights are what allow us to present our brand’s benefits in a way that fulfills our customers’ innermost unmet need.

Balance patient and HCP Needs

One of the questions we often get asked is whether we recommend positioning brands differently for HCPs and patients. The answer lies in the unique relationship between HCPs and patients within rare disease categories where there is more of a partnership. The opportunity to help HCPs see the brand benefit through the eyes of their patients can have significant and lasting effects. The challenge is how to incorporate the clinical benefits for both audiences. Rare disease patients are often more educated about their conditions because they’ve had to advocate for themselves over lengthy and arduous journeys, so they can understand and appreciate more of the science. But that doesn’t mean that the positioning should be built around clinical differences. It simply means that a single brand positioning that speaks to both audiences is not only possible, but in many cases preferable. Balancing rational and emotional needs is often the key to achieving a single positioning that works for both audiences.

Bring Your Defining Customer Insight into Your Unique Selling Proposition

When we think about the unique selling proposition of a rare disease brand it is essential to be single-minded. Kitchen-sinking a list of product features will not make for strong brand positioning. In fact, it will only confuse what the brand stands for and how it can solve the most important customer problem. Thinking back to the opinions expressed by your colleagues about positioning in the first paragraph, the challenge will be to keep clinical data or MOA out of your unique selling proposition. These things have a place in positioning, but they are better suited as reasons to believe in your brand. Rather, your unique selling proposition should reflect the solution to your customer’s defining insight in a way that only your brand can deliver.

For example, a USP might be stated as “unlocks new possibilities” if the defining insight was that patients and HCPs felt a sense of despair over the future disease course and clinical trials supported this promise.

Connect with your audience through real emotion

The brand’s emotional benefit should be an extension of the unique selling proposition in emotional terms. All too often, brand teams get to the emotional benefit and default to “confidence” or “hope” as the emotion expressed by customers. But all brands should inspire some sense of these emotions. So, it is important to push through to the real emotions that are rooted in the defining customer insights. Getting the emotional benefit and the USP right is what allows the brand to connect with customers on a visceral level. It’s the way in which your brand tells customers that you “get them” and that you can be trusted. For example, if patients and HCPs have been on a long, exhausting journey to diagnosis, a therapy that makes them feel renewed can demonstrate genuine empathy and foster a real sense of connection.

Create experiences that lead to brand choice

We know that emotion drives behavior even among the most rational-thinking HCPs. After all, HCPs are strongly motivated by a desire to help patients – it’s why they chose to go into medicine. In rare disease categories one of the most powerful things we can do is to help HCPs see disease through the eyes of their patients and offer solutions that speak to their underlying drivers. When we build positioning in this way, we can create experiences that lead to brand choice and enduring loyalty.