You’ve got an innovative and excellent product, so why aren’t NHS influencers and decision makers talking about it? Dr. Alastair Kirby is an Industry and Technology Navigator at Kent Surrey Sussex Academic Health Science Network (KSS AHSN). In this blog, he reflects on what marketing is, and why it matters just as much for start-ups, scale-ups, and new products as it does for established companies.

I recently spoke to Mark Venables, one of the founders of specialist agency Highland Marketing and a 30+ year veteran of selling and marketing to the NHS, about the challenges health-tech / med-tech start-ups and new product teams face.

Marketing is about translation.

We started with the question of what marketing and public relations are. Everyone in business has a view, this is Mark’s summary – “being able to explain your product quickly to help understand its relevance and how it meets needs.”

I see that as translation. A lot of start-ups and new product teams put emphasis on product development, but they don’t think hard enough about what the impact of their product is for potential users.

Med-tech and health-tech innovators are not always seasoned entrepreneurs, they’re clinicians or technologists with passion and a brilliant idea. Their skills are in technical areas, not necessarily in explaining benefits to influencers and potential purchasers. They need to translate their product features into benefits, then get the message out to their customers.

The challenge is converting ideas into value. And the way to do that is to invest in a thought-through marketing, public relations, and sales strategy. In the early stages of an idea, this investment could be time but, as your product scales up, your strategy will need allocated funding.  

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Identify your value

Mark tells a great story about a start-up sharing an investment deck with him. He showed it to some contacts, but no one saw much value in it. However, when one of those contacts met the start-up managing director at a conference and got talking about the product, what he heard bore no resemblance to the deck, but was of very real interest.

So, a business idea well worth consideration, but the document intended to drive investment just didn’t translate its value. Bottom line, you can’t expect a potential investor or customer to work out what’s good about your innovation, it’s up to you to identify and articulate the value proposition of your product.

Cut above the noise with a clear message.

Once you know your value, you need to articulate it. What’s required here is an ability to cut above the noise, with a message that’s crisp, clear, relevant, and segmented on your customers. Within the NHS, case studies and stories are a great way of showing impact on clinicians’ lives and ultimately on patients’ outcomes.

This is where there’s real benefit in bringing in a specialist, an organisation that understands communication, knows how to workshop your messages and stories, and understands the health and care context. As Mark, says you’re dealing with a sophisticated audience who want to know that you’ve got real expert knowledge and understanding, and they want to get to the facts quickly.

Invest for success.

One of the most common topics the KSS AHSN Industry team discusses with innovators is where they should be investing time and money on promotion and relationship building. Mapping this journey is different for each innovator. However, there is a common theme – clearly articulating your value to the NHS is vital for success.

Some innovators view marketing costs and time as something to be minimised, after all they take resources away from R&D and headcount budgets. Yet to be successful, they need marketing just as much as they need product development or senior team members. It’s fundamental to getting your message and impact across to an expert audience.

Mark’s view is that the industry rule of thumb is 20-30% of revenue to get you established, then diminishing over time. It’s a difficult call though, especially at the early stage when there’s no meaningful revenue. Mark suggests one way of looking at this is if marketing spend isn’t featuring regularly on your list of major budget items, or on your investment deck, you’re probably not spending enough.

Build marketing in from the get-go.

One of the problems Mark talked about was marketing as an afterthought. The team that has understood a need, worked on the technology, developed a product – and only then thought about how to talk to people about it.

I’d advise any start-up or new product development team to include marketing from the get-go. Marketing is as much about listening to your customers as is it talking to them. Seek feedback, thoughts, and advice on your idea at an early stage.

This doesn’t mean a five-figure budget. You also need to make some headspace to focus on commercial matters. Ideally, you should have a senior colleague on the development team reflecting customer needs, crafting the value proposition, and setting the strategy and plan.

Work with a partner.

I asked Mark what his single biggest message was. He was clear, “don’t underestimate the importance of working with a partner that has an understanding of the market space.”

I think that’s right, whether you’re focused on a new product, or running a lean start-up, chances are you’d benefit from both an external perspective and expert input. Both of our organisations – KSS AHSN and Highland Marketing – are in that business. We can help you get started with clearly articulating your value.

So, if you want to know more about KSS AHSN and how they can help, get in touch with the KSS AHSN team and contact Highland Marketing for futher advice.

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