In pharma, the focus is always on market share, market share, market share. Managers are measured by growth and their ability to counter new competitive entrants and offset contracting pressures by private and government payers. Because of this, product differentiation is an important role for marketing. There is widespread fear of becoming a “me-too” commodity drug.
But while the focus of pharma brand teams is on avoiding product commoditization, little attention has been paid to that same danger for the brand manager.
There’s a real danger that brand managers themselves could become commoditized.
“Commodity” is the point when a product or a service is “fungible.” In other words, it can be easily replaced by a substitute. Substitution is the biggest threat to any product or service, because when the buyer (or, in this case, the employer) doesn’t perceive any significant differences between alternatives, they buy strictly based on lowest price.
As pharma management feels the effects of margin pressure on their business, they will look for ways to consolidate or eliminate redundant positions. They will look for ways to substitute expensive talent with technology, lower cost employees, or consolidated roles. In each case, it’s the employee with little to show that’s unique and valuable whose job is suddenly at risk.
How Do You Avoid Becoming a Commodity?
There are four things that you can do to inoculate yourself from becoming fungible. While these strategies certainly apply to companies, they are just as valid for individuals looking for career advancement.
When you’re a generalist, you’re easily replaced. On the other hand, as you become recognized for your focus in a particular niche, your competition and risk of substitution decreases. But this requires choosing to specialize. It requires the discipline of focus.
Expertise is closely aligned to specialization, but is slightly different. Once you’ve decided on an area of specialization, your job is to become a world-class expert in that niche. While specialization enables you to reduce your competition by reducing the possibly for substitution, expertise justifies charging a price premium.
As an employee, specialization and expertise give you a great deal of negotiating power when it comes to retaining your job, getting a promotion, or finding a better job.
3) Pattern Recognition
Specialization and expertise enable you to develop the skill of pattern recognition. Pattern recognition is the ability to walk into a situation, recognize a problem and quickly form a strong hypothesis on the solution. It allows you to get to the heart of the matter quickly, often without the need to do a formal study or commit to a time-consuming diagnostic. It communicates confidence, a sine quo non of leadership.
Pattern recognition only comes after you’ve seen a similar situation multiple times, and is thus a product of specialization. It increases your productivity and the trust of your company in your role and value to the business. Your ability to spot patterns can protect you from becoming fungible.
Companies position themselves. Products position themselves. Brand managers also need to position themselves. Positioning involves creating differentiation from anyone or anything else that might be seen as a competitor. Positioning is about figuring out how to place yourself in a role where the opportunities fit your personal capabilities and brand.
Moving Beyond Fungibility
As you think about the current state of your career, have you created a unique brand around an area of specialization that makes you hard to replace? Are you investing in ways to deepen your expertise? How aware are you of recurring patterns in your business that give you faster and better insight into more effective answers?
Even as you work on positioning your product for success in the marketplace, make 2013 the year you explore how to position yourself as a successful brand in the marketplace, one that can’t be replaced by substitution, whether that’s technology, lower cost employees, or business consolidation.
Be the brand!