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Agencies' final frontier

In the quest for globalisation have we boldly gone past the point of no return?

The solar system with the sun and earth prominent The last decade or so has seen major pharmaceutical companies grow and grow. Through mergers and acquisitions, the big guys have grown even bigger and a number of the little guys have been swallowed up in the process. The same has happened with the big communications networks, like IPG, Omnicom and WPP, who have acquired small-to-medium-sized independent agencies in an attempt to complete their European coverage and meet their individual client needs.

It has been like the currently favoured cosmological theories of the universe, where gravitational force accumulates matter into stars and then into galaxies. Of course, there have been some supernovas, some ageing red giants and some white dwarfs in our industry too. As for black holes and dark matter, I'll leave you to draw your own analogies.

There are economic theorists, just as there are cosmologists, who would argue that this is a temporary state of affairs, that the whole process is cyclical and that – if we wait around long enough – it will all start to split apart again. However, in the pharma world, we just might have gone past the point of no return.

Brand globalisation
A chief consequence of the globalisation of companies is their natural desire to globalise their brands. It seems obvious, doesn't it? If you have a major brand that you want to market in all the major areas of the world, then the branding, the product promise and the unique selling point (if it has one) should be equally applicable everywhere. This stands to reason. After all, a chemical entity is the same chemical entity, no matter where you sell it.

In consumer marketing, of course, this has been a desired objective of multinationals for many years. With established brands, it has often proved very expensive, especially where it has been necessary to re-educate consumers about the very name of a brand – a core brand property if ever there was one. We probably all hold fond memories of Jif, Marathon, even Oil of Ulay.

For a long time there has been the need to maintain consistency across markets for trade-marked logo styles. Some companies have gone a stage further, seeking consistency in promotional and advertising style. Mars, for example, has always insisted on every product having a USP: "A Mars a day helps you work, rest and play"; Topic, with "a hazelnut in every bite" and Maltesers, the sweet with the less-fattening centre (ah, those were the days, eh?). And so on.

However, there used to be a fairly high degree of latitude in how individual territories could execute these principles to accommodate local habits, needs and cultural variations. It could be something as obvious as the fact that, at one time, most UK households had the washing machine in the kitchen, whereas no one in Switzerland did.

Nowadays we see more and more commercials from abroad appearing on our screens. Post-syncing may have improved since the glory-days of Odor-Eaters, but it's still easy to spot when lip movements have little to do with what's being said or when cars drive on the wrong side of the road.

That's because we now live in the age of the Global Brand Book – and that's as true in the pharmaceutical industry as it is in consumer marketing. Perhaps even more so.

Tightening hold
Brand books come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from just a few pages to the multi-volume shelf-bender. They also range from simple rules to ensure consistency of logos, typefaces, colours, arrangement of graphics and so on, right through to the point where just about everything is prescribed; layout, content, key visuals, graphics for tables, graphics for graphs, photographs of patient types, photographs of physicians – the lot.

And that's the nub, isn't it? Yes, a chemical entity is a chemical entity is a chemical entity. What the compound has been shown to achieve in clinical trials remains constant wherever it's sold. Its USP will (usually) hold true in all the different markets around the world. But those are all product attributes. That's looking at marketing from the product's end of the telescope, and that's only one part of a brand's essence. Reverse the telescope and see things from the target audience's end, in terms of how it relates to, and feels about, a brand and things get a little different.

All those social and cultural differences between countries and peoples suddenly assume much larger proportions. And healthcare professionals are an integral part of the communities in which they live and work; their beliefs, attitudes and outlook all reflect their environment. You have only to look at newspapers, magazines or TV from another country (and over the past few years there have been whole TV shows devoted to such sport) to realise that, as they say, they do things differently there.

Even if one acknowledges that doctors are a more global species than many – they read international journals and attend international conferences – it doesn't change the fact that a large part of their emotional make-up is formed by the patients they see, the peer groups they meet and the society in which they live. If you are trying to secure that crucial and invaluable added value you only get from an emotional buy-in to your brand, then you ignore such knowledge at your peril.

Is that the reason why global brand books so often seem to end up as global bland books? In trying to develop communication materials that will appeal to everyone across different nationalities and ethnicities, is there the danger that they will end up as a lowest common denominator, appealing to no one at all?

Inflexible approach
The frustrations for agencies involved in implementing these brand book behemoths are twofold (at least). First, of course, is the straight-jacket their creatives are forced to wear and at which they predictably gripe and grumble. More to the point, however, is the inflexibility prescribed by the more heavy volumes that can often preclude any real engagement with the tactical needs of a local market or a local target audience.

What happens if a competitor brand is doing unusually well in one country compared with most others? What if doctors in one place are more interested in, say, a mode of action and all the data in your materials are about outcomes? What if the lifestyles, hobbies and sports portrayed in patient-type photos are not the lifestyles, hobbies or sports enjoyed by the patients in your region of the world?

Issues like these can leave an agency struggling to provide the best possible communication materials for the client if the brand book is overly prescriptive, as many are. Moreover, the local client offices often have a natural desire to 'do their own thing', despite the dictates of the global brand book, which generally leaves the local advertising agency devoid of creative income.

There is another corollary for agencies that has important implications for the industry's future. As pharma clients become more global, so they demand a similar globalisation from their agencies. This makes it progressively harder for the smaller independent agency, often a breakaway start-up, to compete on a level playing field. They can never make it onto the big boys' agency rosters.

While these independents don't want to lose control of their own businesses or, at least, are reluctant to sell out before they're ready (if anyone is still buying), it's proving even more difficult for them to acquire the new business they need for growth or, in some cases, just to continue trading as independents.

The danger implicit in this is that we will lose that vital and regular injection of new ideas and new creativity that this kind of agency has historically brought to the industry and which keeps the rest of us on our toes. The only way out of this bind currently is to form some kind of loose association with one of the major players, which still allows them their independence as a business. It's less than ideal, but it's the best we can look for in today's climate.

Globalisation isn't going to go away. What we have to do is make sure it is properly controlled to provide the most effective marketing communication for our clients in all their different locations. In the wider galaxy, this must be to the benefit of both clients and the industry at large (or small).

The Author
David Barratt is chief executive officer, Euro RSCG Life & Health 4 Brands.
To comment on this article, email pm@pmlive.com

29th July 2009

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