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War games: why brand teams need a cunning plan that cannot fail

Chris Ross turns to a military metaphor – and the wisdom of battle-hardened experts – to explore how pharma can overcome the challenges of strategic planning

In the final scene of Blackadder Goes Forth, Private Baldrick’s cunning plan to prevent his regiment having to charge into no man’s land was never revealed. Who knows, it might well have been ‘as cunning as a fox who’d just been appointed Professor of Cunning at Oxford University’ – but his comrades never got to hear it as the whistles sounded for the big push. Whatever the idea was, it was always going to be torpedoed in favour of trench warfare strategy that turned soldiers into cannon fodder. In fairness, Baldrick never had a reputation as a tactical genius, so his alternative plan would most likely have failed. But history repeatedly tells us that, in war and in business, even the best tactics cannot salvage poor strategy. It’s food for thought.

The ancient Chinese general Sun Tzu once famously said: “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” It’s a philosophy that still resonates centuries later, and one that translates perfectly for a pharmaceutical industry fighting ultra-modern commercial battles. As obvious as it sounds, companies’ best hopes of winning the war is to find the right combination of strategy and tactics – with the former driving the latter. Yet, for many, aligning the two remains a difficult task. Brand teams need a cunning plan that cannot fail. But designing and delivering one requires vision, leadership and military precision – and collaboration across the troops and beyond.

This month, as the world faces up to its biggest crisis since WWII, our topic of discussion is strategic planning. In previous years, this feature has highlighted the importance of agility and the need for strategic planning to be alert to change. Scenario planning and war-gaming have been common themes. This time around, those phrases feel different. Few recent scenario plans will have war-gamed a global pandemic that brings the world to its knees. The implications for patient care and stakeholder behaviours in other disease areas go beyond the classic ‘known unknowns’. COVID-19 provides a whole new context to strategic planning and it’s far too early to say where it will lead. For now, mindful of that context, this piece examines the fundamentals of an age-old process that, very soon, may look entirely different.

So what do we mean by strategic planning? Commentators suggest that the term is problematic in that it conflates two distinct disciplines. In Bruce Craven’s 2019 book ‘Win or Die: Leadership Secrets from Game of Thrones,’ strategic planning is described as a ‘mischievous’ term because the development of strategy is very different from the development of plans related to that strategy. ‘Strategy,’ it says, ‘requires determining where to compete and how to win. Planning provides orderliness and discipline. It is about putting strategy into action, not creating strategy.’

Sarah Theobald, Agency Lead, Evida, agrees. “Strategy and planning are really two separate activities that frequently get wrapped together in strategic planning. Strategy is about defining your overall direction and aspirational goals, and planning is about working out what you actually need to do to get there. The two go hand-in-hand but are distinct; the planning should naturally fall out of the strategy.

“Effective strategic planning begins by setting out a long-term vision – shaped by known customer needs – which is then broken down into a handful of strategic drivers or imperatives that define the overall direction. Underneath these sit the objectives, providing a clear and measurable outline of what needs to be achieved to realise the vision. Then, finally, comes the tactical planning – the schedule of what you’re going to do, how and when. As with everything else, these activities should be driven by customer insight from the outset.”

The marriage of strategy and planning, however distinct the two disciplines, is an essential feature of business success – and it’s the cornerstone of pharma/agency relations when it comes to strategic planning. Andrew Woodger, Strategy Director, Purple Agency, said “We see strategic planning as an amalgam of two parts. The strategic plan, owned by the client, is driven by business goals and objectives based on metrics like approvals, sales, margin and market share. The planning part is where agencies can add real value, helping to define the behavioural and perceptional change goals that enable achievement of business objectives. These are driven by insight and planning – probing to find ‘what’ needs to change, ‘where’ and ‘how’.”

Della Tennant, Senior Director, Consulting at McCann Health, said that strategic planning is an opportunity to align everybody in an organisation around a clear set of priorities and goals. “It’s the North Star for everything you’re going to set off and do,” said Della, who thinks there are four core elements to a strategic plan. “Number one is situational analysis. You can’t start writing any strategy until you’ve done that up-front analysis based on deep customer insight on both the market and competitors. This will help you define the real-world issues and opportunities for your brand. The second component is the brand strategy itself. This includes the positioning, core messages, prioritisation of your customer segmentation and strategic imperatives.

Functionally aligned SMART objectives naturally spill out of this process. The third element is tactics: what are the tactical initiatives that are going to support your objectives? And then the final piece is the metrics. Companies like to set out their financial metrics upfront which is understandable. However, in terms of defining target measurements, it’s best to keep this piece until the end when you’ve done your situational analysis, written your strategy and defined your tactics.

The growing importance of holistic customer insight has led to a change in approach among many pharmaceutical companies. “Historically, old models of ‘strategic planning’ have been based on a very insular, internal view of the external environment,” said Sarah Theobald. “Happily, that’s evolved. Nowadays there’s a widespread drive to adopt an ‘outside-in’ strategy, with brand teams committed to fully understanding the bigger picture from the outside world as a first step. This is achieved through deep consultation with all their external stakeholders alongside proper evaluation of the competitor landscape.”

Strategic insights, said Sarah, extend far beyond your own brand. “It’s obviously important to know your product inside-out, but you also need to understand your competitors’ development plans, what they’re talking about and how they’re positioning. Ultimately, a core objective of any strategy is to ensure you differentiate to stand out from the crowd. Your customers provide the biggest clues. That’s why mapping external perceptions is a baseline requirement for strategy development. This typically means defining all your different audience groups, mapping out the various archetypes and personas within them, and understanding current beliefs in your therapy area. It’s then about identifying how you’d like those beliefs to change – and building a strategic plan that transitions customers from current beliefs to those desired beliefs based on knowledge of their priorities and impactful tactical execution.”

Pharma’s ability to factor behavioural understanding into strategic planning is potentially an area for improvement. The approach is at odds with the industry’s traditional reliance on ‘process’. “Strategic planning at the business level is generally very good – pharma is great at planning and actioning stuff,” said Andrew Woodger. “However, the general assumption is that things will play out in a logical way, following a rational behavioural theory framework. In truth, most behaviours are heavily influenced by emotional responses – and this is where the insight-driven element of the plan is so valuable; predicting responses and likely outcomes using more of a behavioural economics model. Patient and HCP insight is key to understanding the ‘why’ of behaviour. Customers’ perceptions, beliefs and experiences are likely to define marketing goals, unlocking the positives that can be leveraged and what might need to change to enable the successful delivery of the plan. Sales figures and prescribing data may tell you the ‘what’ and the ‘when’, but they will never tell you the ‘why’. Perceptional and international culture differences can often defy rationality and subvert the logic of the planning process.”

So where else could pharma improve? The industry’s long-standing belief in rational behavioural theory has naturally seen it develop standard templates to drive strategic planning. At the worst extreme, this can lead to a tick-box approach that’s process-led rather than customercentred. “Pharma teams can sometimes focus too much on process and internal issues instead of getting the depth of insight that can really drive a differentiated strategy for a brand,” said Della. “Brand planning is not about filling in templates, it’s about working with a broad cross-functional team to get the insight, critique and strategic thinking that make a brand stand out.”

Moreover, the required connectivity between strategy and execution is a victim of the template-driven approach. “There’s sometimes a misalignment between strategy and tactics,” said Della. “Some companies write brilliant strategy based on deep situational analysis – but then suddenly leap to a tactical plan that’s full of the same old stuff. They don’t do enough to link strategy and objectives to really specific tactics. The smartest operators pause at the end of the strategy and think about the engagement goals and behavioural changes they want to inspire – then tailor tactics accordingly. Building that bridge from strategy to tactics is essential – it’s the only way to do justice to your situational analysis to ensure all your tactics (and engagement) are absolutely tied back to deep customer insights.”

And what about the elephant in the room – responding to seismic change. As the late American Cardinal, Richard Cushing, said: ‘Always plan ahead. It wasn’t raining when Noah built the ark.’ In normal circumstances, the strategic horizon for a brand plan should ideally be looking out about three to five years – with plans revisited annually to maintain a weather-eye on progress. But a significant event like COVID-19 can dramatically reshape everything. So what can you do?

“Many companies test their strategic plans through ‘war-gaming’,” said Andrew Woodger. “Role-playing how competitors might respond to your planned actions or how unexpected events might derail the plan. Ultimately, you can only test your plan against the foreseeable ‘known unknowns’, but at least you have an understanding of its robustness, the risks and threats and how you may need to adapt the plan in response. Agile and responsive strategies build in indicators – lead and lag metrics – that will help your plan fly. Because fundamentally, managing a strategic plan is like piloting a plane. It’s about keeping an eye on the dials and monitoring performance against KPIs, so you’ve got the best chance of staying on the flightpath to your ultimate objective while being able to adapt to headwinds along the way. The route you first planned is unlikely to be the one that gets you to your destination – so be flexible and make sure you keep checking the map.”

It’s clear that strategic planning is a team sport that requires joined-up thinking and collaboration across and beyond organisations. The process will invariably be led by a brand director or commercial lead, but the effort will solicit involvement from a wide range of internal stakeholders; medical, marketing and sales; pricing and reimbursement and market access; general management, portfolio leadership, therapy P&L holders; R&D, regulatory, finance and supply chain. It’s a broad church that should extend further to leverage insight from external stakeholders like strategic partners, customer groups, patients and end-users.

“Strategic planning is about partnership on multiple levels,” said Sarah Theobald. “Partnering with external stakeholders is obviously pivotal, and internal collaboration between cross-functional teams is hugely important too. But in addition to this, the most successful brand teams work in concert with their agencies as trusted partners. A good agency will help you understand all the different perspectives. They’ll ask the big questions that challenge your thinking. And they’ll help you develop the customer insights that unlock the answers and inform your approach.”

And so we return to where we started. That final scene of Blackadder Goes Forth is, as strange as it may seem, a fitting parallel for strategic planning – marking the big push as teams prepare to take their plans over the top.

Strategic planning commonly draws comparisons with military strategy – and there are few more illustrative examples than WWI. Field Marshall Haig’s Grand Plan – which according to Captain Blackadder involved ‘climbing out of our trenches and walking very slowly toward the enemy’ – led historians to describe the British infantry as ‘lions led by donkeys’. The consequences – thousands of brave men falling to their inevitable deaths – was a collective failure of strategy and tactics, driven by ignorance of real-world conditions and an inability to adapt to the evolution of modern warfare. It’s a harsh metaphor for strategic planning, but the lessons translate to the business environment. Strategy is the highest level of a plan and without it, even the best tactics will not work. Brand teams therefore need to invoke the spirit of Baldrick and work together to develop a cunning plan that cannot fail.

Chris Ross is a freelance journalist specialising in the pharmaceutical and healthcare industries

15th April 2020

Chris Ross is a freelance journalist specialising in the pharmaceutical and healthcare industries

15th April 2020

From: Marketing

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