How to Avoid the Pitfalls of ‘Confirmation Bias’ When Building Powerful Rx Brands

Believe it or not, the success of pharmaceutical brands is often undermined because of biases inherent in determining the most appropriate brand positioning. These biases impact a brand’s commercial performance by reducing its perceived differentiation in the marketplace and its ability to influence prescribing behavior.

This article describes learnings regarding confirmation bias and the impact it has on brand positioning and its influence on your brand’s trajectory.

Confirmation bias is a tendency to search for information that confirms one’s preconceptions.

Confirmation bias comes from many directions and subtly diminishes brand differentiation. Recently, articles have been written about the negative impact of confirmation bias in personal investment strategy, in mergers & acquisitions, and now in pharmaceutical marketing. Confirmation bias creates ‘blind spots’ neglecting strategic go-to-market decisions. This is often because brand teams misunderstand customer-experience variables or address customer perceptions as superficial or secondary issues when, in fact, they are the key consideration.

In their simplest form there are two things that are sure to diminish the success of a new Rx brand: 1) Things we don’t know, and 2) Things we think we know, but that are not true at all!

Sounds so simple, yet it often isn’t.

Confirmation Bias Examples
Confirmation bias can take many forms. How many of these can you recognize?
  • Seeking out evidence to support what is already believed or to ignore data that might disprove those beliefs. “That’s so ridiculous, I’m not even going to waste my time refuting it.”
  • Believing we know more than we do or assume our knowledge is more precise than it is. “I’m 100% certain that’s true for many brand teams, but no way that applies to us.”
  • Trying to justify a past decision even after the mistake is obvious. “That’s nonsense, and I’ll prove it after checking these sales figures. We’re 25% below plan, but we’ll be back on goal in no time!”
  • The tendency to see clearly that other people’s behavior isn’t optimal, while remaining oblivious to our own shortcomings. “The more I think about it, the more I can see how that might apply to our competitor.”
  • Finally, a tendency to draw sweeping conclusions from extremely small samples of data. “Without thinking about it, I can come up with three people who would never do that: me, myself and I. But, we’ll do a small qualitative study to confirm.”

Confirmation bias is often the result of engagement in the old standard operating procedure of marketing, whereby teams talk only among themselves and their agencies rather than with their customers.

The result: brand teams often fail to understand how their decisions help or hurt real-world brand perception.

Robust brand validation is the only way to effectively identify the strategic brand positioning that will result in the greatest success for any brand. It takes us from what we “think” to what we “know” with confidence.

Understanding Prescribing Behavior Mitigates the Risk of Confirmation Bias Healthcare brand marketers are rarely the prescriber or the patient for the products they market. It is not possible to accurately predict prescriber response to your brand until your brand stories are tested – not among your team – but among target audience prescribers.

Qualitative assessment helps to ensure clarity of message when optimizing brand positioning.
Linguistic testing provides the first clues to potential disconnects between the industry and prescribers. Interestingly, when deeper brand stories (as opposed to brand messages) are tested among potential prescribers, they inevitably identify words and phrases that fail to resonate and provide insight into more connected language. Often this is not the wording thought to best communicate the concept by the client, the agency or even us.

The bottom line: despite the best intentions of the client, the agency, or OptiBrand Rx to craft the perfect brand story, prescribers and patients always change some components of the story to reflect their reality and the way they want the story told to them.

Quantitative assessment takes us from what we think to what we know is right for the brand.
For more than a decade we have employed and refined a Prescribing Laboratory (based on a robust conjoint analysis) specifically designed to evaluate prescribing behavior and the relative influence of brand positioning options on commercial success. This exercise predicts real-world prescriber behaviors based on review of a patient’s chart. Options may include the current product profile, leading competitive drug profiles, or a host of other actions which might be chosen in lieu of prescribing like “watchful waiting.”

This model enables brand teams to visualize and understand the behavioral change in prescribing likely to result from the perceived positioning of their brand. More importantly, it illustrates why and for whom each concept resonates. This is information needed sooner than later so critical decisions and necessary course corrections can be made with a high degree of confidence.

This object lesson in the perils of confirmation bias occurred a few years ago when a highly-anticipated chemotherapy was launched in the US for metastatic breast cancer. After two full years of marketing, this highly anticipated brand reported sales of under $200 million and was not being prescribed at the levels anticipated.

As part of an initial Deep Dive into all available scientific and marketing background on the brand, as well as interviews with KOLs and oncologists, we determined that while all data points looked good and pointed to high prescribing rates, something was deterring prescriptions at the point of diagnosis.

Our research to fill these gaps in understanding revealed key behavioral insights and unexpected emotional triggers (the story of how we identified this hidden influencer is the subject for a future Strategy Tip) at the point of diagnosis which lead us to three strong, new brand stories created and workshopped together with the brand team and agency.

There was strong disagreement that qualitative and quantitative validation should be conducted due its potential impact on schedule (really), and that “Option D” – an incumbent favorite prior to our involvement – should be pushed forward.

The Prescribing Lab® saved the day.
If quantitative validation had not been part of the repositioning initiative, the brand team would have fallen into the surprisingly all-too-common trap of voting by a show of hands, Post-Its on the wall, or the loudest voice in the room.

Absent rigorous validation, each of these voting methods would have reflected the attitudes and confirmation bias within the team – not the attitudes and desires of those meant to prescribe and benefit from the treatment.

While a strong argument for proceeding with Option D was made, the brand had already disappointed once and no one in the room could risk a second failure, quantitative validation proceeded as planned.

The result: Research revealed that Option D, so strongly supported prior to the assignment, would have driven nearly 50% of prescribers out of the class of drugs entirely. Confirmation bias would have tolled a potential death nell for the brand!

While this is an extreme example, it exemplifies the perils of confirmation bias if not counterbalanced by quantitative validation. If the team had simply gone with their ‘gut’ they would have missed the opportunity to see for themselves the negative impact and likely failure of Option D. Instead, they selected a strong, data-driven brand story that has brought the brand to where it always deserved to be: a billion-dollar brand changing the lives of cancer patients.

Keep in mind: All things being equal, if two brand stories are in contention your chance of selecting the better one is 50/50. Those odds decrease rapidly when selecting among more than two. Quantitative validation specifically designed to test brand positioning is the most accurate way to determine the best brand story to drive commercial excellence.

Prevent bad strategic decisions. Quantitative validation will inform the brand team by revealing answers to important strategic questions at a point in time when changes and course correction can easily and economically be made.

The result: A data-driven brand story with the best opportunity to change prescribing behavior and optimize commercial success.

At OptiBrand Rx, we are passionate about understanding the emotional triggers that underpin Patient and Prescriber behaviors.  We have developed tools to translate these triggers into clear, singular and emotionally connected strategic brand positioning.

We were established in 2006 with the singular vision of providing deep, unbiased strategic vision, brand positioning and naming to maximize the commercial opportunity for healthcare brands.  We believe that brand success equates to better access and improved patient outcomes.

OptiBrand Rx | Transforming Research into Results. Contact Us.