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Breaking the surface

Branding is all about high visibility and standing out from the crowd. How much of an effort is pharma making to raise its head above the parapet?

Ask any product manager at any pharmaceutical company whether he or she believes that branding is a strategic imperative in today's harsher climate of slowing pipeline growth, generic competition and regulatory shackles, and they will almost certainly say yes. But is the industry really taking branding seriously, or is it merely paying lip service to it?

For years, other industries have given the impression that brand maintenance is a life and death matter, whereas in pharma it can be regarded, at best, as a growing interest. Certainly, the discipline has come on in leaps and bounds in a sector where once it was only the products that had to say anything to the customers. While pharmaceutical branding still remains largely product-oriented, there is at least an admission within the industry that companies need to catch up in the branding evolutionary process and work harder to develop, build and sustain lasting product and corporate brands that will give them that crucial competitive edge.

The provision of branding services in the UK is also evolving. Until recently, pharma firms in search of expertise in the area were restricted to specialist niche consultancies which, on the whole, concentrated on delivering product branding. Nowadays, full-service agencies offer both corporate and product branding on top of med ed, PR and advertising.

Earlier this year, Medicom launched a new consultancy, Medibrand, headed by ex-Core-Create managing director, Stephen Page. At the time, Page said the new agency offered a design and branding capability to help clients pour corporate glue down the cracks to make their corporate brand more cohesive.

Yet, those espousing the virtues of branding have had to overcome dogged resistance from some quarters, not least because of deep, fixed traditions that have driven and shaped the industry. The effect of regulatory constraints, which other industries are not burdened with, has been well documented, but there is an argument that the problem lies as much in pharma's reaction to the restrictions as the restrictions themselves.

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Writing in Pharmaceutical Marketing, Rebecca Robins, global marketing director at Interbrand Wood Healthcare, said in 2003: `Pharma needs to break through the glass ceiling that has been imposed less by the actual restrictions and regulations of the industry and more by its perception of their limitations'.

Mike Young, senior partner at branding consultancy, Brand(x) says that a whole set of beliefs and philosophies about how pharmaceutical products should be promoted and sold have taken a long time to reappraise.

The basic assumption in the industry is that we manufacture products that are innovative and, therefore, already distinct from those of our competitors in meaningful and functional ways, he says. The natural urge is to rely on sales reps to communicate messages at a functional, rational level.

Although Young admits that reps should not be precluded from putting across branding messages, he argues that they are an intrusive medium, perhaps not as effective as they used to be. It is common knowledge that increased regulation is making reps' lives harder, but firms are reluctant to admit that a far greater obstacle to their success is the fact that successfully differentiating their innovative, functional product from hordes of other innovative, functional products is becoming a thankless task.

Living in an information-soaked age, it is becoming increasingly difficult for companies in all sectors to maintain a competitive advantage with a product on a purely functional level, and pharmaceuticals is no exception. No matter how convincing the argument is to prescribe a hospital-based speciality drug or a mass-market painkiller, it is usually a safe bet that there will be alternatives available, competing effectively on safety, efficacy and price.

Standing out from the crowd remains the goal and exponents of branding would argue vociferously that it remains the best means to achieve it.

To all intents and purposes, the gaps between products are narrowing and they are becoming more and more similar, says Young. If the differences are small at a functional level, one way of achieving differentiation is by emphasising the importance of those small differences. The other way is to explore branding.

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Branding before the product
Tom Fraser, director of naming at consultancy, Origin Branding, says that the real challenge his company faces is finding that differentiation in what is a massively crowded marketplace.

There are tens of thousands of registered pharmaceutical trademarks in the world, and we have to develop strongly distinctive trademarks which do not conflict with anything already in existence, he notes. Clients are also looking for some kind of emotive hook to these pharmaceutical product brands. Our philosophy is that it is really the brand, as opposed to the product, that differentiates in the vast majority of cases.

Ken Ribotsky, US president of Core-Create argues that branding is often more important in healthcare and pharma because it is usually the decisive factor that can motivate healthcare providers to go that extra step and use a product.

Healthcare professionals have many obstacles placed in front of them before they acquire a product that they want for a patient, he says. Comparing products simply on safety and efficacy is becoming more difficult because the clinical information tends to blur. Branding can go beyond the simple efficacy of a product and create not only an affinity but also a loyalty in the mind of the customer.

Creating such an affinity requires sustained commitment, and the frontrunners in the industry are only now beginning to rise above the level of the glass ceiling to which Robins referred and perform some serious brand construction work.

Fraser points to the fact that Novartis, for one, has hired a wealth of consumer-experienced marketing people as evidence that the industry is at last waking up to the idea that brands matter and make a difference.

Yet, how does branding actually manage to make a difference when the industry's main customers (ie, doctors) seem so driven by safety, efficacy and cost?

Young insists that branding is effective because in the real sense it is the customers themselves who build the brand rather than the drug manufacturers. Branding refers to basic human behaviour that occurs when we come across objects with names and we tend to make associations with those objects and names in our minds based on the encounters we have with them, he explains. Some of these associations are rational and some of them are emotional, and they are not necessarily controllable by the manufacturer.

He adds that companies, therefore, have to draw up a `brand identity' blueprint of what they would like those various rational and emotional associations to be and then act on it by trying to influence as many of the encounters as they possibly can.

The blueprint has to be related to a thorough understanding of your customer and has to be based on the reality of what the actual product can deliver, he notes.

However, understanding the true nature of pharma's customers has long been a pitfall for companies that have failed to invest adequately in brand management.

On the surface, it appears simple enough - the trick is to comprehend the doctor-patient relationship in any given disease area and then formulate a strategy based on how the product might be used. This involves a thorough examination of the product profile, and asking questions such as `how will the product impact on the customer?' and `who will this product appeal to?'

Young points out that one of the biggest misconceptions of branding is that it appeals to the emotional, rather than the rational. Of course, you need to present your product by surrounding it with rational arguments, but the right emotional background is vital, he says. While a doctor may not necessarily admit that they will make decisions based on feeling or instinct, what are they going to do when faced with so many A2A receptors and they all look more or less the same? I'm not challenging the delivery of the rational benefits of the product, I'm merely saying that effective branding means balancing this by presenting them in a beneficial emotional context.

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Let people know you
Slowly but surely more companies are buying into brand building. Consultancies are keen to begin their accounts with a client workshop, allowing them to participate in the creation of a brand identity and, more importantly, to obtain ownership of it from the very start, a prerequisite to successful and sustained rolling out of the brand.

It is generally agreed, however, that the work doesn't stop once the brand has been built - maintenance of the brand through the product life cycle requires a dedicated and consistent approach, which is not always possible given that product managers chop and change so regularly. Another argument for sustained branding comes in the form of the ever-changing NHS, which could yet wrestle control away from pharma much in the same way that retailers did from manufacturers in the FMCG industry.

There is a higher risk of products becoming more commoditised under the new NHS and so it will become even more important for companies to develop an affinity, loyalty and positive emotional connection to a product as early as possible, says Ribotsky.

While pharma has embraced branding its products, its efforts to polish up its image via corporate branding are slower to emerge. With thousands of products on the global market, it is perhaps no surprise that pharma would wish to invest more on optimising product potential, rather than corporate image where the benefits are less tangible. Yet, there are clear signs that big pharma at least is starting to poke its head above the surface and be seen.

Referencing the new Euro-Japanese powerhouse, Astellas, Fraser notes with interest that two relatively faceless, characterless companies came together under this new fresh, emotive identity and had an impact on the marketplace.

It is perhaps too soon to suggest that a brave new world will one day see pharma adopt the Virgin policy, effectively dispensing with product brands, painting on the corporate brand instead. But with so many drawing attention to the toughening challenges of the global environment, firms need to find new ways of outshining the competition. It may just be time to jump on the brandwagon.

The author
Gareth Carpenter is assistant editor of Pharmaceutical Marketing magazine

2nd September 2008

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