In our Marketing of Life Science Tools and Services group on LinkedIn, we recently discussed an article in the Harvard Business Review on “The End of Solution Sales.” While this is an excellent article and I suggest reading it, we’ll focus on one key finding: that “[…] customers completed, on average, nearly 60% of a typical purchasing decision — researching solutions, ranking options, setting requirements, benchmarking pricing, and so on — before even having a conversation with a supplier.” This is just the beginning, but it does highlight something of key importance for marketing that is not discussed in the article.
If 60% of the purchasing decision is concluded before interaction with sales, marketing needs take responsibility (and claim the opportunity) for satisfying customers’ self-driven quests for information.
As the default behavior of B2B consumers is changing to include more self-fulfilled quests for information, life science marketers must make the necessary information to drive their target audience’s purchasing decisions available. The ability to predict the information that will be necessary, as well as the downstream ability to shape content to the audience’s measured behavior, is of increasingly critical importance. Marketing campaigns need to be able to respond dynamically to collected data on prospect behavior if the appropriate content is to be delivered at the appropriate time. A content roadmap becomes an even more critical component of generating demand. These factors collectively drive the importance of performing market research / marketing research, developing a clear marketing strategy, and planning a content-driven campaign.
If B2B purchasing decisions are 60% made by the time a conversation w/ supplier occurs, this places more of a responsibility on life science marketers to shape opinion before that first conversation. More planning is required, however such planning will have an increasingly positive effect on marketing ROI. Furthermore, we can conclude that marketing campaigns driven primarily by awareness-generation efforts will continue to decrease in effectiveness.
At BioBM, we interact with a lot of start-ups. Most often these start-ups consist of a team of scientists and / or engineers, sometimes with little to no start-up experience on the team. Marketing experience is often lacking entirely. Because of this, we run into the same problem over and over – young, ambitious companies who, knowingly or not, wager their success by putting action before strategy.
Having a great product or service is the #1 factor in a young company’s success. You’ll never catch me saying otherwise. However, a great product alone isn’t sufficient to be successful. By rushing to market without thinking strategically about anything other than product development and prior to having strategy-backed plans in place for marketing, sales / distribution, support, and a multitude of other factors is, plain and simple, a bad idea. You are very unlikely to hit your target if you’re shooting blind, regardless of how big your gun is.
Furthermore, there is often an assumption among scientists that their experience in the field makes them sufficiently knowledgeable about the needs of the marketplace that little to no outside information is necessary. While experience being a member of a market certainly conveys some knowledge about the broader marketplace, and if you were to ask one person to explain a market in great detail it would naturally be someone within that market, it should never be assumed that this knowledge is sufficiently accurate. Start-ups should never rely solely on their own opinions and views for the same reason that you would never want to do a market research study with only a small handful of individuals. Opinions and perceptions vary. Just like anyone else, scientists are perfectly capable of being biased by their own opinions. As the saying goes, the plural of anecdote is not data.
Companies would be far better served by doing their homework. The time and resources required to properly strategize and plan should be incorporated into the estimates of start-up costs (not to mention the costs of initial marketing campaigns, which are again frequently underestimated or overlooked by individuals with little or no functional expertise in marketing) and resourced appropriately. The product(s) may be the heart of your company, but a heart alone doesn’t sustain life. If you want to ensure that you’ll be successful, make sure you have all the other pieces in place before you rush to market.
Many life science tools manufacturers, especially smaller companies, have a tendency to push a lot of marketing responsibility on to their distributors. In most such cases, the manufacturer often retains some broad marketing responsibilities which are usually focused on branding or awareness (for example, advertising in scientific journals or websites) and leaves their distributors responsible for most or all aspects of lead generation and nurturing. Allow me to take a very clear stance: this is a massive mistake – one that costs life science tools companies and their distributors incredible amounts of lost potential product demand (and, in turn, revenue).
Your distributors strong point is not marketing your products. It’s selling your products. It doesn’t matter who your distributors are – they are salesmen first and marketers second. There is a very good reason for this.
Creating and distributing individual marketing communications is relatively cheap. Developing a highly effective content-oriented marketing strategy, framing the campaign architecture, then building and deploying such a campaign is a very laborious process that can require a very significant time commitment by highly skilled marketers. A distributor, with maybe dozens or hundreds of product lines, can not realistically be expected to take on that burden. Additionally, distributors’ internal competencies often strongly favor sales to marketing, and many smaller distributors lack sufficient in-house marketing skill to perform deep analyses on products (and, perhaps, markets) that are novel to them. As distribution contracts may be tenuous and temporary, distributors are rightfully hesitant to devote such resources to marketing.
Life science tools manufacturers would be far better served by creating holistic marketing strategies that map out how to take prospective customers through lead generation to the point of sale, defining what will be performed by themselves and what will be handed off to the distributor (if any). If the distributors will be responsible for any aspects of marketing, there should be a high degree of collaboration to ensure that the marketing efforts are synergistic and build a single, coherent campaign rather than a set of discreet, loosely-related components. In other words, it is acceptable for your distributors to execute parts of your marketing campaign, and indeed they may have marketing resources which can help manufacturers generate demand beyond what the manufacturers could generate on their own, but they should not be left to design the campaigns or key marketing messages.
While salesmen are certainly capable of generating leads, marketing is a much more efficient and effective tool for this purpose. Because life science tools manufacturers often leave lead generation to their distributors, who are heavily sales-oriented and almost always have a very limited incentive to invest heavily in marketing for any single product line, a lot of potential demand is never realized and both manufacturers and distributors suffer from sub-par sales.
In mid-April, we discussed how despite the presence large amounts of negativity in the life science tools market, things actually appeared to be getting better. To follow that up, we conducted a brief 6-question survey last month to determine if people within the sector felt similarly and try to gauge if companies were preparing for better times or worse times ahead.
The survey was open from May 1st through May 31st. 22 respondents completed the survey. One respondent’s set of responses was removed from the survey due to not responding in the affirmative to the qualifying question which asked respondents if they worked within the life science tools and services market. Based on IP, 14 respondents were from North America, 6 were from Europe, and one was from Asia.
The questions (aside from the qualifying question) and responses are below:
1) Complete the following statement: “Thus far in 2012, my company’s sales have _____.”
2) Complete the following statement: “Compared to the last quarter of 2011, I feel _______ about the life science tools market”
3) Compared to the first half of 2012, how much does your company intend to spend on the following functions in the second half of 2012?
4) Which of the following is presently true about your company?
Additionally, two respondents left comments at the end of the survey. One noted “The market seems stable at the moment. We are mildly optimistic about the future.” The other stated “There are significant cuts in the research budgets.” The latter statement allows for some confusion as to whether “research budgets” referred to mean the academic research budgets or the budgets for internal R&D, although use of the plural leads us to believe the respondent most likely meant academic research budgets.
We find these results very interesting. While year-to-date performance in the respondents’ companies tends towards under-performance, perceptions compared to the previous year are roughly flat but companies are hiring and will be spending more. This could be due to any of multiple factors. For example, companies could be re-hiring and increasing budgets as a rebound from previous, overly conservative budget cuts. In other words, companies may have planned for a situation that was worse than the present, and therefore even though the present situation may not be good, hiring and increased spending have become necessary. Another common macroeconomic cause for increased hiring is decreasing workforce productivity. Additionally, some companies may increase spending in response to increases in spending at competitors in order to “keep up with the competition.” This discrepancy could also simply be a flaw in the survey, or perhaps a real difference in perception between the overall attitudes of life science tools companies and individual employees. There are many possible explanations, and we simply do not have enough data to evaluate all of the possible causes. All are free to draw their own conclusions.
Regardless, while the responses about company performance and the perception of the overall life science tools market are tepid, we are encouraged by the trend towards hiring and increased spending, and hope that companies rightfully see a reason to continue to invest in future growth.
There’s been a lot of negativity in the life science tools market recently, at least with regards to the economic outlook. European government austerity, a possible US sequester, and cooling Asian economies have given a lot of people a sense of unease (or downright fear) about sector growth. Over the past two months, however, there’s a bunch of data that says things probably aren’t going to be so bad after all.
Back in late February, a MarketsandMarkets study projected the life science and chemical instrumentation market to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 8.4% from 2011 to 2016. Morgan Stanley analyst Daniel Brennan then noted in early March that commercial sales of publicly traded life science instrument companies had been stronger than expected and is less vulnerable to the economy than many had feared. A DeciBio study released last week projected that the life science tools market will grow by about 4% per year over the next 5 years. Sure, 4% isn’t a great growth rate, but it’s certainly enough to sustain the industry. Last Thursday, Goldman Sachs analyst Isaac Ro said that company performance in the life science tools industry for the first quarter of 2012 “appears to have trended better than initially expected” and noted that academic spending trends have improved.
While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that we’re in the clear, and there are certainly still hurdles the industry faces moving forward, we can all breathe a collective sigh of relief. The life science tools market isn’t in nearly as bad of shape as many had feared.
Life science tools companies are constantly making important product development decisions, and almost all of these decisions involve making a tradeoff. Should your company focus its limited product development resources on entirely new lines, expansions to existing lines, or improvements to existing products? Much of this decision-making, especially for smaller companies, boils down to choosing between breadth and depth in the product portfolio. So what are the benefits of each, and when should each be given focus?
It’s certainly no easy question to answer generally. Without question much of the answer will depend on a company’s positioning and the opportunities that present themselves (a SWOT analysis is often good for helping to make such a determination), however there are many considerations that are less variable and can be discussed in a more general context. Let’s discuss a few of those.
Risk / Reward
To an extent, the 80/20 rule, or at the very least the rule of diminishing returns, comes into play in product development. A few key, highly differentiated products in any area are likely to make “80%” of your revenues in that area, assuming that you have such a product to begin with. Expanding on products in that area, or continuing to build on that key product through features, etc., will produce a far lesser return than did the development of the original product. Indeed, as more and more features are added to the key products, or more and more related products are added to the related product line, each improvement or addition will likely capture fewer and fewer customers. If the opportunity exists to build a disruptive product in another market, that will generally offer a much greater opportunity to build sales.
The risk of expanding into new markets, however, is much greater. Developing an entirely new product often involves the development or acquisition of new technology, and the cost is often much greater. It will involve markets that your company is less familiar with, and you may misjudge the market. Customers also gravitate towards holistic solutions, and if your offering doesn’t have the product support within your own line to stand alone, that may be viewed with significant negativity. Additionally, and this will lead us into the next point of discussion, if you don’t have a strong focus in any area then your company’s brand won’t be recognized as an authority in any area.
Having too narrow of a product line is a risk in and of itself as well. If you’re entirely invested in one market, and a competitor brings a highly disruptive technology into that market, you could be out of business. While building around a highly successful product line may be seen as risk-averse, small companies with limited product development resources still need to diversify to some extent.
If you have many great but unrelated ideas, continuously going after the “80%” may seem very tempting, but it does have its drawbacks. Not being known for any one area could have negative effects on your company’s brand. Especially if customers in a market have varied needs, you won’t be known as a go-to source for any of the types of products that you offer, even if you have that one standout product. If your product line is all over the place, having disparate, eclectic products with having a well-rounded offering for any particular need, customers won’t think to look to your company for anything, and that can certainly be problematic.
On the other hand, having a deep product line can help establish you in that area, again assuming your products are sufficiently differentiated. It also helps you focus brand-building marketing efforts, or at the very least makes them easier.
It’s worth repeating that there is no right answer or formula to follow that will tell you where you should focus your product development efforts. The decision must be dependent on your situation, risk tolerance, opportunities, and more. Align your company’s product development goals with your overall goals, carefully analyze your situation, and you’ll know what the right decision is.
Corporate social responsibility has been all the rage for years now. Corporations in many fields are almost expected to prove that their interests are one with the common good and that they’re not just money-grubbing, profiteering institutions. Corporate donations have always been popular, and get companies a tax write-off, but that doesn’t really do much good to the company. Performing feats of goodwill that benefit both the cause and the company (and often create more social good in the process) is encompassed in cause marketing.
Being in the life science tools industry I was surprised when I read a recent Harvard Business Review article that referenced some numbers on the prevalence of cause marketing from a 2010 a PRWeek/Barkely PR cause marketing survey. As of 2010, two-thirds of all companies reported engaging in cause marketing, and 97% of marketing executives believed cause marketing to be a valid business strategy! If you look around the life sciences that certainly doesn’t seem to be the case. Given, simple self-reporting that your company engages in cause marketing is a low target as it doesn’t require that the cause marketing effort be of significant size or visibility.
Regardless of the reasoning for the survey numbers, it lead me to think that cause marketing is indeed under-leveraged in the life sciences. I know of only a handful of such efforts across the industry – the first one that comes to mind is Labnet’s manufacture of Susan G. Komen branded pipettes (which don’t even seem to be available anymore). In a way it does strike me as odd. Certainly there are many charitable or non-profit organizations funding compelling biomedical research that would be great cause marketing partners for life science tools companies. Think about it: How compelling would it be to a life science researcher to be able to purchase a product or buy from a company that supports life science research, maybe even research in their own field? There are certainly many potential opportunities to do just that … but not many laboratory tools companies seem to be making the effort.
While I wouldn’t suggest diving into cause marketing head first because of my admittedly anecdotal musings, it does seem that cause marketing may be an opportunity ripe for the picking by life science tools companies.
It’s no longer big news – the U.S. congressional “supercommittee” tasked with finding $1.2 trillion in federal spending cuts in the next 10 years has failed. On November 21st, the committee conceded failure and, barring the miraculous passage of any budget legislation over the next year which would meet those deficit objectives, the sequestration plan goes into effect starting Jan 2, 2013, cutting $1.2 trillion across-the-board. As a life science tools company that sells products in the United States, especially if you make a substantial fair amount of your money in the US and have exposure to academic research institutions, this should rightly scare you.
The sequester would cut 7.8% from the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the Centers for Disease Control. That’s a huge cut that equates to over 2,500 less NIH grants and 1,500 less NSF grants in 2013 compared to 2011. While the sequester isn’t a certainty at this point – details could still be revised and a budget agreement could still be reached – President Obama has stated that he would veto any plan that doesn’t meet the deficit reduction goals, making a deal unlikely.
Consider this – the NIH spends over $31.2 billion on life science and medical research annually. To give this some perspective, PhRMA estimates that in 2009 the ENTIRE PHARMACEUTICAL INDUSTRY spent $65.3 billion on R&D (although reported data from CapIQ would suggest that number is at least 50% higher). As one can surmise from these numbers, the pharmaceutical and biotech industries are highly unlikely to make up for the loss of R&D spending. If the sequester goes through as currently planned, my estimate would be that life science tools companies can expect a 3% to 4% decrease in their US sales, presuming that their current market shares between industry, academia, etc. are proportional to the respective current R&D spending. Obviously companies that sell a disproportionately large amount to academia and other organizations highly dependent on NIH funding will see a greater decrease in sales. Likewise, companies that sell products which make work in the lab more convenient will likely feel the pain somewhat more than essentials.
With governments across the globe having major budget problems, leaner times for life science funding are extremely likely to become a reality. The companies that will be able to succeed in spite of it will be those that understand their exposure to potential reductions in funding and plan accordingly.
Why do scientists buy any given laboratory products? How do they make their purchasing decisions? That’s the magic question that all of us seek to answer. While there is no one answer, and what answers we can attribute are dynamic, there is something that holds true. To sell life science tools and other lab products, there needs to be value, and this value can come from many places, such as:
- Quality – value that comes from the product itself. The product may be more reliable, easier to use, technically superior to other products, etc. Scientists almost always desire reliable products that work on the first try and product consistent results. Building a great product is a big piece of the value equation.
- Service & Support – value that comes from your company. This is an ongoing effort to make sure your customers have everything they need to successfully use your product. For best results, your support to the customer should not only be reactive, but should include proactive support as well, especially to customers who are using a particular product or product line for the first time. While perhaps not as important as the quality of the product itself, this is another highly important piece of the value equation for laboratory tools. In a study performed by BioBM, over 60% of scientists reported having refused to order a laboratory product because of a previous experience with the manufacturer or distributor selling it.
- Marketing – perceived value created in the minds of scientists. The thing about value is that it either has to be experienced or communicated in order to be effective. Marketing is the communicator of that value, and how well you communicate that value will directly effect the perceived value of your products, especially for customers that have never used your products or dealt with your company before. If you haven’t communicated your product’s value, or if someone else hasn’t communicated it for you, scientists won’t recognize the value and therefore won’t buy your product.
If you fall short in one area of value creation, you can sometimes make up for it in another. For example, an imperfect product may be perfectly acceptable to a scientist so long as it is well-supported. Even if your product and support aren’t top-notch, but you make a compelling value proposition in your marketing and communicate it to a wide audience, your value will be understood and you’ll still get sales. (Note that the previous statements referring to lower value products be interpreted as lower value relative to similar products and not in absolute terms. Truly negative impressions of quality or support are difficult to overcome and you cannot be successful long-term if a high percentage of your customers are not satisfied.) The total perceived value is then weighed against the price and the customer’s price sensitivity when making the final purchasing decision.
Value comes from many places, and overall value is ultimately the driver of purchasing decisions made by life scientists. Understanding how to create and communicate value will make your laboratory research products, and your company, more successful.
As in most markets, players in the life science tools industry are always looking to get a squeeze a little more revenue out of their product lines. While price increases may erode demand and ultimately prove ineffective in helping the company’s bottom line, there are markets that are often under-served or overlooked by small life science companies. Efforts to expand into these markets often allow opportunities to grow revenues without much additional effort, and so long as your products would be a fit for the needs of the markets it could prove quite lucrative.
Small life science research tools companies often focus on their largest potential markets: pharma / biotech and academia. This focused approach leaves out a large swathe of potential customers as there are many other ancillary markets for life science tools. Forensic labs, food testing labs, environmental labs, and medical labs (at least for unregulated products / procedures) are all markets that may require little effort to expand into and are effectively less crowded due to many companies overlooking them.
Taking advantage of these often under-served markets may be as simple as creating new marketing communications directed at these markets and advertising through avenues that are higher-visibility within those markets. Product positioning can also be a major help. For example, developing protocols that are specific to the needs of those markets may differentiate your product from others who focus on more “mainstream” life science applications. You may be able to find distributors who specialize in certain markets and leverage their unique reach. Any of these things can be relatively low-cost, low-effort ways to expand your potential market size, and there are certainly other efficient ways to do so as well.
Chances are, there may be potential markets for your life science products that your company is not currently exploiting. Through marketing, distribution, and other means, you can take advantage of under-served markets and get more revenues out of your product lines.