Scientists as Consumers
In our last post we described the market’s sellers – the biotech tools companies. But in order for there to be a market there has to be a buyer—in this case, life scientists working in pharmaceutical, biotechnology, university, and government labs. (As an aside, I hate it when people use the word “space” when they mean a market or a market segment. I believe “space” came into widespread usage when dot.com entrepreneurs were describing their whimsical business plans. They couldn’t say they were serving a market because there weren’t any buyers or sellers. So they called it a “space” and the word has been misused ever since.)
Now, in our position of facilitating communication between suppliers and their customers, we’ve had the opportunity to observe an interesting phenomenon – the evolution of the life scientist as consumer.
In the past, strong, innovative products could literally sell themselves in the life science market. Biotech tools companies focused on developing new technologies that were quickly adopted by end-users with minimal marketing effort. To produce profits, internal manufacturing efficiencies were relied upon to bring ever better products to the market in less time. But the very forces that caused the market for biotechnology tools to evolve so quickly are now forcing a reassessment of how companies do business. The “push-to-market” model of technology driven companies is being replaced by a more customer-centric attitude where the unmet needs of end-users drive the development of new products and services.
It’s often assumed that because this is a scientific market, the evaluation of competing products and purchasing decisions takes place in the realm of objective assessment, but in fact, they often take place in the realm of belief and familiarity.
Recognizing this characteristic of the scientific consumer helps us to better understand the dynamics of a market where an unusually high percentage of buyers use products with their own hands to “craft” some important end result. Whether it’s a world-renowned investigator deciphering the expression patterns of a specific gene, or a graduate student growing a colony of cells, the end-user has an emotional attachment to the process.
Our experience, and the responses to our thousands of surveys, reveals a fascinating picture of the life science customer. This picture illustrates an individual who:
• Often makes purchase decisions based on perceptions and reputation
• Relies on brand associations to reduce or eliminate risk
• Actively promotes and champions his or her favored suppliers
• Can swing between extremes of loyalty and hostility to suppliers
• Exhibits signs of increasing sophistication and heightened expectations of supplier performance
One of the most intriguing—and challenging—aspects of competing in the life science market is the high degree of homogeneity exhibited by scientific customers, particularly in the ways they prefer to receive and respond to marketing messages. Product development decisions seem almost simple compared to the challenge of creating effective communications designed to inform and influence life scientists. Perhaps the similarities exhibited by scientists should come as no surprise—for the most part these individuals have followed the same educational path, they read and aspire to be published in the same prestigious journals, they belong to many of the same professional societies and they have been inculcated with the same ethics and values. Life scientists are simultaneously imaginative and yet skeptical, creative and critical.
Consider the environment in which scientists have been educated, were trained and currently work. New theories and techniques are vigorously challenged and acceptance can often take many years. The same inherent skepticism poses a major hurdle for all suppliers seeking to introduce a new kit or instrument that deviates from tools or techniques that have proven successful in the past.
There are exceptional companies in every market —including the tools companies serving the biotech market—with which it’s a pleasure to do business. From the scientist’s perspective, even the most ordinary interaction with these vendors carries with it an aura of the wonderful and extraordinary. We refer to this as a “branded customer experience.” A company’s brand embodies its reputation, image and identity. It’s the expression of both the values for which the company stands, and the value it offers its customers. Convenient ordering, timely delivery, accurate billing, superb technical support and friendly, knowledgeable employees enhance a company’s brand. Tools companies should express the value and promise of their brand not just in the product itself but also at every point of contact with their customers.
In terms of their motivations and needs, scientists are little different from general consumers. Or, as authors Michael Treacy and Fred Wiersema observe in their book The Discipline of Market Leaders:
“Customers today want more of those things they value. If they value low cost, they want it lower. If they value convenience or speed when they buy, they want it easier and faster. If they look for state-of-the-art design, they want to see the art pushed forward. If they need expert advice, they want companies to give them more depth, more time, and more of a feeling that they’re the only customer.”
Substitute the word “scientists” for “customers” in the passage above, and you will truly understand the challenge facing suppliers in the life science market. The tools companies that understand this reality are building customer satisfaction, trust and loyalty. It’s upon these emotional factors rather than their technology alone that they will elevate themselves above those companies destined to languish in the “also-ran” category.