By Rob Wright, Chief Editor, Life Science Leader
Follow Me On Twitter @RfwrightLSL
During my conversation with Dr. Freda Lewis-Hall, Pfizer’s chief medical officer, she shared an example of one of her employer’s products that, frankly, didn’t resonate with patients and their lifestyles. Exubera, the first U.S. insulin option approved for type 1 and 2 diabetes that didn’t require a needle for administration, was launched in January 2006. Pfizer was so confident Exubera would be a blockbuster, just days before receiving FDA approval the company paid $1.4 billion to Sanofi-Aventis for its share of the inhalable insulin. However, in October 2007, due to lack of consumer demand, Exubera was pulled from the market.
Dr. Lewis-Hall’s story on Exubera’s flop reminded me of the numerous business marketing cases I studied back at Cleveland State University. Guided by the late Robert Hartley’s best-selling textbook, Marketing Mistakes & Successes, we dug deeply into the factors behind product feat and failure. As is so often the case, looking back upon marketing botches through the lens of hindsight often reveals leadership decision mistakes that seem blatantly obvious. But are they really? When Exubera was pulled, it was easy for critics to point fingers toward Pfizer’s failings (e.g., the drug delivery device was too large). But to me, Pfizer’s miss is no more obvious than the famous miscue by the company whose logo has 94 percent global recognition — Coca-Cola.
Back in 1985, the Coca-Cola Company launched new Coke as a replacement to its 99-year-old formula and flagship product. The move was met with an unprecedented firestorm of consumer protests. Company leadership was blasted by pundits for having made the marketing blunder of the century. How could Coca-Cola have made such an obvious mistake? Simple, it wasn’t that obvious. At the time, the company had been losing market share in its flagship market with its flagship product for 15 consecutive years. Coca- Cola had to do something to stop the downward skid. By 1984, the company had secretly arrived at a new formula, supported by extensive research. In fact, the $4 million reformulation market research was so solid that then Coca-Cola chairman, Roberto Goizueta, termed the decision to launch new Coke as, “one of the easiest we have ever made.” In thousands of blind taste tests, the new formulation not only topped the fabled secret formula, but it also beat out rival Pepsi by 6 to 8 percentage points. Why then did it take just 79 days after the new Coke launch for the original Coke to return to store shelves? Only the benefit of hindsight reveals the company’s folly — failing to consider the ability of focus groups to accurately predict the effects of social influence in the real world.
I applaud Lewis-Hall for sharing Pfizer’s failure to ask all the right questions of the right patients at the right time when it came to the unsuccessful launch of Exubera. However, if patient-centricity is your goal, all of us can learn from the lessons supplied by new Coke. Their researchers did ask all the right questions of all the right people and yet still failed fabulously — thanks to the ability of Coke loyalists to influence public opinion. Being patient-centric means fully accounting for the ability of players beyond patients to influence public opinion, which can prevent or delay access to even those products clearly deemed superior (e.g., the Cytyc ThinPrep pap test).