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All things Pharma

Flying start



A dynamic launch is crucial to the success of a new product. But as Chris Sheehan explains, it takes careful planning and hard work to achieve that first impact.

Product launch’ is one of those expressions that are often used without thinking. Most medtech device launches bear little resemblance to a fuel-charged, countdowned rocket launch at Cape Canaveral. They do share the painstaking preparation of space programs – but their success is measured in months and years rather than seconds.

It’s not rocket science, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Some products sink without trace because they do not meet a market need (ask yourself: Who will pay for it and where will the money come from?), because they are poorly promoted, or because the company has insufficient resources to support the product after the launch (good after-sales service is one of the reasons why customers buy again at tender).

Markets need to be developed, especially where they are not reimbursed and a change in health policy is needed. Market development for new technologies is expensive. Working with competitors to expand the total market often avoids letting a product with no competition but an undeveloped market fail to live up to expectations.

Market research is vital and should be measured. Off-the-shelf reports are useful as ball-park setters, but reaching customers and forward-thinking opinion leaders is the key to success.

Planning ahead

Launch planning starts months, usually years, beforehand. It begins with a business case to determine whether the likely sales will cover the investment of designing, making, shipping and supporting the device. FDA and IVDD, for example, need to see that a new product’s performance and the claims made for it can be linked back to the original market requirements. It is good practice to have these essential attributes in a version-controlled and all-department signed-off format.

Marketing will oversee the product launch, but it is a whole-company effort – from R&D and design engineers to operations and logistics groups, as well as support services such as legal, regulatory and finance.

The launch event needs to educate and to be in a sensible location relative to the customers, since regulations on corporate hospitality mean that many public healthcare systems, including our NHS, restrict overseas travel to company events.

One large US corporation held a keynote launch event in Boston headed by geneticist James Watson. While the event was heavily attended by US customers, many Europeans did not feel that 10 hours of air travel and a gruelling itinerary (with no free time) merited the trip.

Live and kicking

The launch event should ideally have customers who have used the new product presenting their findings. However, pre-event trials at the time of launch can stretch company resources.

The essential components of a product launch are:
• Creating excitement ahead of the launch, and if necessary working to delay purchasing decisions (especially in tender-driven markets) until the product is available.
• Making purchasing information (technical specs etc) available ahead of time.
• Offering proof that the new product will do what is needed and has been claimed, and will be available when predicted. Customers are sceptical of ‘coming shortly’ marketing messages, and one US diagnostics corporation routinely ‘launches’ systems three to five years ahead of time.
• Setting price points and incentives correctly.
• Offering adequate demonstration to key opinion leaders and early adopters by organising visits to R&D, production or trial facilities, so that excitement is turned into practical action.
• Compliance with regulations about availability and marketing, especially if a European launch predates a US launch by some years.
• Planning training for engineers, application specialists, sales people and customers (including all stakeholders in, say, a hospital department) if the product’s use is complex.
• Getting launch customers ready to buy as soon as possible – private hospitals can decide quickly, and suitable incentives or trials that become live systems are ways to accelerate the first invoice after launch.

If all of these components are well planned and executed (project planning is vital to the perfect launch), then the ability to communicate to the market that the first customers have gone live will be great company PR and welcome feedback for the hard-pressed launch team.

Zero hour

Strategic marketing will oversee the whole launch process, but local marketing and sales teams have to be involved in a phased manner. If sales teams are brought in too early, it may lead them to promote the new product at the expense of existing products, to the detriment of other sales targets and even of the company’s reputation (as the message “It’ll be another three months” soon grows stale).

In my view, sales training is best done three months or less ahead of the launch, to keep the information fresh. Joint trade shows or launch events will allow all concerned to see the customer reaction and then tweak the positioning and messaging around the new product.

Depending on the buying process (in tender markets selling must begin 12–18 months before the order is placed), there must be a continual release of new information about the product to keep the momentum going post-launch. This could include:
• number of customers gained
• customer testimonials in print or at meetings
• peer-reviewed publications
• test menus or feature enhancements rolled out
• new regulated markets opening up
• strategic alliances or distributors signed up
• milestones such as the first 100 systems sold.

Planning line extensions at the start of the process means that a family of related products can be communicated, giving a sense of continued development. Customers buying capital equipment over five or more years worry about obsolescence, so development is essential. Software versions can be used to maintain the ‘newness’ of a medical device for the customer. Adding test menus to existing systems is another good way to improve profitability and maintain a fresh brand image. Sales campaigns backed by advertising or incentives keep the momentum going.

Finally, a year after the launch a formal team review should look at performance against plan. This is not only a financial exercise: it should involve service and support, and show that failure rates are dropping over time as your company and customers gain experience.

Markets need to be developed, especially where they are not reimbursed and a change in health policy is needed. Reaching customers and forward-thinking opinion leaders is the key to success.

Top 10 launch tips

1. Do market research on who will buy what, when and with what attributes, and use this to build a robust business case.
2. Your starting point should be an orderly development and launch process with formally signed-off requirements.
3. Plan the marketing and sales activities early on, especially if these have a regulatory or multilingual component that requires training.
4. Get your customers excited before the launch, but do not commit to delivery dates or penalty clauses for a late launch.
5. Create a launch plan with phases and responsibilities that span the launch dates (and do not end there).
6. Be prepared to release pre-launch information to prospective customers up to 18 months ahead in tender-drive markets.
7. Begin sales training no more than three months before the launch, allowing the sales team to keep focused on their targets for current products.
8. Engage key customers at the design stage, showing how past complaints have been listened to.
9. Hold a memorable launch event that includes excitement, education and customer-to-customer interaction.
10. Enjoy the moment – then start planning the next launch.

Chris Sheehan has spent over 20 years in the diagnostics industry, working for companies such as Amersham, Kodak and Johnson & Johnson. His career spans R&D, operations and sales and marketing. Now an independent healthcare consultant, he is working with diagnostics companies across Europe.


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