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Changing face

Pharma is recognising the power of a corporate presence and of revealing to customers what lies behind their product brands

A maskNo idea, said the doctor. Absolutely no idea. And it doesn't matter. It really doesn't. On first sight, it seems strange that the prolific user of a particular drug should have no awareness of who manufactures it and such scant regard for its heritage. In our consumer world, we use the corporate aura to confer attributes to a brand, be that reliability, innovation, economy, whatever. The brouhaha in the media following Jeremy Paxman's comments on the falling 'gusset' standard from Marks and Spencer - the embodiment of quality in the pant department - illustrates the reputation some corporate brands have built (These are not just pants, these are...).

The difference lies in the fact that our doctor doesn't need the reassurance a corporate badge can bring. He can rely on the endorsement of the MHRA, NICE or a plethora of other bodies to lend authority to his decisions. Said consultant does, however, have a strong sense of what the manufacturer in question stands for, even if he has no idea what products it makes. It is one of the big players, it has a lot of major drugs, it's a major investor in R and D.

What he fails to mention is that it also invested quite heavily in educational grants to support his visits to congresses. And here's the rub. That investment in furthering his knowledge is unlikely to bring an overt return in brand allegiance without any association to the sponsor. Those who police the industry code may argue that this is as it should be. But those at the sharp end may feel short changed.

onversely, there could be benefits to a low corporate profile if there are multiple rep forces on the loose, say, given the potential reluctance of some customers to see more than one face of the company. But as Rebecca Robins, global marketing director of Interbrand Wood Healthcare and co-author of Brand Medicine: The Role of Branding in the Pharmaceutical Industry points out, perhaps the biggest fear is of the brand taking a tumble. The industry has been hallmarked, historically, by a reluctance to assert the corporate brand. Largely, that reluctance has been driven out of an intent to separate, and thus to protect, 'church from state' ie product brand from corporate brand. In an industry where risk management prevails, where clinical trial failures and product failures are part and parcel of the process of bringing life-changing drugs to market, companies have tended to shy away from a brand architecture model which cements an overt correlation of product and corporate brand. The thinking has been that, should the worst happen, it affords a distancing which results in less of an impact on the corporate brand. We have only to recall the Johnson & Johnson Tylenol poisoning case, to know how valuable the corporate brand can be and what a crucial role it can play in that context.

In a major incident closer to home, when six healthy volunteers suffered a severe adverse reaction in a research site at Northwick Park Hospital, it was initially the hospital (albeit the drugs testing unit was run independently) and Parexel, who co-ordinated the trial, that hit the headlines. Tegenero, the manufacturer, was not first in the firing line - although subsequently the company did file for insolvency as this incident made it impossible to attract the investment necessary for continued operations.

Tim Warren has experienced both sides of the fence, formerly working client-side but now seeing the world from the vantage of director of business development at Saatchi & Saatchi Healthcare.

Companies need to have a corporate brand to help with their financial PR activities... The power of a good corporate brand will enhance their value to investors and shareholders and (so long as the reputation is good) reassure patients and doctors.
This latter point is important because, in some respects, corporate branding has to be Janus-headed. Stakeholders can have very different and, one might argue, conflicting, needs. Shareholders want to maximise their return, customers - especially given the monopsony in the UK - want to minimise their costs.

For Robins, this has led to the current paradigm of disassociation between brand and company. Thus, pharmaceutical companies have been typified by what we define as a 'freestanding' brand architecture model and the corporate brand has remained, for the most part, a customer and investor-facing entity.

Of course, being the healthcare sector, as Warren points out, there is always an area where both audiences might have shared values and the company can adopt a good corporate citizen stance. Given the positive contribution made by the pharma industry overall, it always seems a pity that some companies' reputations are shaped by the financial remuneration offered to the Board.

"For all customers may rail against 'big pharma', there is often a grudging respect for them..."

Counsel from several parties has noted that there is increasing interest now in leveraging the corporate presence. This may be driven by self-interest as much as it is for philanthropic reasons - but in the commercial world this was always the case. Robins again, Things have changed, continue to change, and will change, as never before. Innovation in the product pipeline is running at a record low. We have only to look at the approval rate of innovative drugs in 2007 as testament to that - a mere 19 new drugs were approved by the FDA last year, the lowest rate in almost a quarter of a century. This means that companies are going to have to get a lot smarter about the way in which they approach branding within their organisations. Simply, the breakthrough drugs upon which blockbuster revenues are built, are fewer and further between. Therefore, if there is a finer line of differentiation at product brand level, surely, the most sustainable way to add value is through the corporate brand.

Certainly, there is a dearth of wonder drugs - and where there are significant breakthroughs they seem as likely as not to come from companies you've never heard of. But in a sector, both global and monolithic, few of these companies continue to the marketing phase - newcomers can struggle to commercialise a brand in the same way that the giants in the industry do. In addition, for all customers may rail against big pharma, there is often a grudging respect for them and a clear pecking order emerges for which are perceived to be the best companies.

Certainly coming from a corporate leader can cast a halo, albeit faint, over a new brand. And for those on the front line, the representatives, coming from a well-known company can help gain audiences with difficult to see customers (which in the current climate seems to be all of them). GOOD REPUTATION Please don't tell my mother I work in the pharma industry, she thinks I play piano in a whore house. And here lies a further benefit of the strong corporate brand. Attracting talent. There can be no doubt that successful companies can only be sustained by employing the biggest brains. Although there have been employee reductions in some companies, the competition for the most able in all areas of corporate life is fierce. Moreover, the number of students choosing sciences seems to suggest an ever-shrinking pool. In the past 20 years, the number of students studying physics and chemistry A-levels has fallen by over 50 per cent, and 37 per cent, respectively. Of course, the reputation of the industry as a whole counts. But once the talent is attracted to the sector, corporate perception will have a big influence. This is perhaps why recruitment ads are often the playground of corporate communications.

Pressure on companies to lift their corporate game comes from another quarter too. We are seeing pull, from physicians and patients alike, as never before, continues Robins. Credibility, value, trust are being called into question, scrutinised and challenged and through vehicles of communication that have arisen with a speed and force, such as we have never seen. This means that companies can no longer afford not to engage with the customers and consumers of their brands.

Certainly this patient-physician power is a force to be reckoned with. The pressure brought to bear in disease areas as diverse as oncology and age-related macular degeneration shows their ability to force even such stalwarts as NICE to think again.

In the UK the restrictions on direct-to-consumer promotion means that raising the profile of healthcare and the availability of treatments is often delivered under the corporate umbrella. If there is only one brand that might be prescribed as a result - or you are the market leader - you might argue that it doesn't matter. This is rarely the case and, for Warren, the role of the company then comes into its own. Whenever patient education is part of the marketing mix, the corporate brand is often visible and important... People want to know where a certain medicine comes from and who is responsible for it.

Of course, there are restrictions in how the industry can mobilise this strength of feeling and, from July, changes in regulations across the EU means that companies will have to be overt about their involvement with patient organisations.

Historically, corporate branding has been deemed to mean little more than corporate guidelines, that is to say some design folly which transcends all individual brands, as in: the extravagant picturesque construction erected to suit a fanciful taste rather than lack of good sense or normal prudence and foresight - although there are many examples where the latter definition is more apposite. At a simplistic level, such tools are unlikely to be sufficient to build a corporate brand but they do, at the very least, remind customers of the product brand's home. There is, inevitably, the danger that if this is the only vehicle for the corporate brand, then that can dwarf the product communication. Andrew Nicholson, creative director at Magnetic, explains the dilemma in getting the corporate-product balance right: Guidelines need to respect the value of the brand and the relationship it has with customers and not genericise under a corporate umbrella - unless of course the company is a generics house, in which case it's perfect. Corporate guidelines exist to present consistency to the outside world but they are often focused heavily on visual content. Language, especially tone of voice, is an important differentiation tool that is frequently overlooked and undervalued.

This is a common plea and is echoed by Orrin Pollard, creative director at DDB Health. Believe it or not, when we are given a brief to come up with concepts for a product or brand, the last thing that comes to mind is how the idea will fit into the corporate guidelines. I have always, and will always advocate that the idea is king. Everything else fits around it and ensures that it communicates as best it can. However, there have been more than a few occasions where adherence to corporate guidelines that have been crafted by some estranged design agency with only one focus in mind, 'everything must look the same', has diluted the impact of the idea.

It's a boring mantra but we can learn lessons from seeing how other sectors do it. Pollard continues. This works, and has worked very well, in terms of identifying a visual corporate approach in the VW print ads. Here though, the layout has enough freedom through its simplicity to allow the idea to communicate effectively, whether the ad is for the Golf, the Polo or any other vehicles in the range. Nicholson cites another instance, An example of [a company with] corporate guidelines that seem to work well is Virgin. The company's activities cover everything from make-up to making money. The balance between flexibility and consistency means that we all immediately recognise both the visual cues - and the slightly rebellious tone of voice. It will be interesting to see how the Virgin brand manifests itself in the healthcare arena when it enters the fray to provide GP services later this year.

So what is the role of corporate and product? What makes for a meaningful relationship between the two? Building a corporate brand is a long term challenge, however, the longevity of the corporate (mergers and acquisitions - which are rife in this sector - aside) makes this a worthwhile endeavour. Warren puts this in context. When patents are being challenged and regulatory hurdles increasing, it is likely that the corporate umbrella brand will far out-live the product brand.

"For those who rise to it and achieve corporate-product brand alignment, the spoils are there for the taking"

For Intebrand Wood Healthcare, who has had a hand in corporate branding for a range of companies from the more established (AstraZeneca) to newer, biotechs (Novozymes), there is a way through this dilemma. Robins explains: In such a context, the companies that will succeed will be those that look beyond the perpetuation of the cycle of product launch to product launch, and who seek to entrench the role and benefits of branding at a deeper - and broader - level within their organisations. One approach to that is, potentially, one of the most compelling of sweet spots, in branding terms. One that forges and fosters a critical juncture between 'church' and 'state' - namely, the franchise brand.

For Robins the benefits are patent. In the franchise approach, similar products are grouped under an 'umbrella' brand, one that is defined by therapeutic area. In a context where forging that bridge and overcoming the extant disconnect between corporate and product brand, the franchise brand has the benefit of communicating a commitment to a defined space, which establishes expectation and pulls around future products and services. It also affords a clear link between product and corporate brand equities in such a way that can help bridge a lot of the restrictions that certain markets are faced with in communication at the product brand level. Finally, it helps to consolidate marketing efforts for the related products.

Of course the company must live and breathe the values it proffers - and deciding on what those are may not be straightforward. Warren summarises what lies at the heart of this, They should understand how they are perceived now and what they want the company to be seen as. Understanding their strengths and weaknesses, as well as the core values, is central.

The challenge to companies to not only create strong product brands but anchor them under a strong corporate badge is not inconsiderable. But for those who rise to it and achieve corporate-product brand alignment, the spoils are there for the taking.

The Author
Tracey Brader

19th February 2008


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