Payers may see biosims as a no-brainer, but marketing them won't be

Spurring demand for biosimilars may become the new pharma marketing challenge in 2017, even as biosimilar launches accelerate in the U.S.

Companies with entrenched biologic drugs—think Roche and its cancer stars, or AbbVie and Humira—have their advantages, said Will Suvari, principal at Pricewaterhouse Coopers’ consultancy Strategy&. They have longstanding relationships with pharmacy benefit managers for volume-based rebates, for one. And they boast customer-friendly infrastructure, including co-pay, reimbursement and nursing support programs. That's likely to make it difficult for biosimiliar drug companies to break in.

“The orginators have been spending a lot of time trying to make themselves sticky and make the patient experience something differentiated, and that’s very hard to imitate,” Suvari said.

"It seems like a very logical story in that ‘here’s a biosimilar and it looks and feels the same as the original, just plug it in, take new patients and off you go.’" Suvari said. "But it’s very difficult for a new entrant to achieve the volume they need to pay comparable aggregate rebates back to the PBMs.”

Biosimiliars could try an end run by taking their cost-effective messages direct to consumers, but that’s not expected to happen. Biologic companies spend millions on DTC marketing every month, but it's expensive, and many biosimilar makers don’t have that kind of money at launch.

“DTC is really expensive. And it’s particularly expensive when you don’t have a patient base," Suvari said. "Big biologics already have a large established patient base; they can afford to do a lot of stuff. The annuity value of any of these drugs gets bigger and bigger over time, and that gives them a lot of freedom to invest in things like direct to consumer advertising."

The other marketing problem is the value proposition. Biosimilars, like generics, are expected to be cheaper, and investing in marketing could potentially add to the cost of the drug—and eat into margins, too.

“If biosimilars really are a cost play at the end of the day, they need to be cheaper from a cost of use and SG&A point of view than the originators,” he said. “It’s a double-edged sword. You’ve got to spend money to get market share, but that kind of undermines your central value proposition.”

In fact, taking a cost-conscious approach seems to be the path biosimilars are heading down when it comes to marketing. Pfizer, for instance, plans to launch Inflectra, its biosimilar to Johnson & Johnson's Remicade, with a dedicated sales force and educational resources.

A Pfizer spokeswoman said via email, “We will be launching Inflectra with a dedicated field force, and will also be offering broad educational resources and support services to patients and physicians.”

Novartis, which snagged the first biosimilar approval in the U.S. with its biosimilar of Amgen’s Neupogen called Zarxio, has leaned on its deep oncology sales force to integrate the drug into its portfolio offerings. It's also using digital information and education, plus—in a page from branded drugmakers' playbook—a Zarxio co-pay program to cover upfront costs for patients and better compete with Neupogen.