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Cutting through

Successful brands strip back complexity to present a message that is simple, focused and easy to understand

 A pair of scissors cutting through the word 'through'What's the most overused claim in marketing? Probably: "My market is different and unique because..." It is stated by marketers in every sector, from financial services to internet retailers to hotels, and generally it is used as the reason why approaches and ideas from other sectors cannot be adopted directly or learnt from.

Arguably, pharmaceutical marketers have more right to make this claim than others. The amount of science and data required to launch and explain each product, the regulatory environment, the mix of different audiences that must be engaged (from patients to physicians and payers), the level of investment required and the diversity of products and indications, all combine to make it a daunting environment for marketing. To make matters worse, this complexity is only going to get worse as the functional differentiation between products gets narrower, regulatory cost-reduction pressure on the sector increases and pharmaceutical companies put greater emphasis on developing ever-more sophisticated 'world-class' marketing processes.

The real issue, however, is not the level of complexity, it is the sector's inability to create brands that can cut through it. That's why we believe, more than ever, pharmaceutical marketers need to learn from other sectors where the most successful brands have one thing in common: simplicity.

The most successful brands grow because they relentlessly pursue simplicity: in their ideas, execution and focus. They strip back the complexity by being more selective and by making difficult choices. The result is that they are leaner and get better returns from their marketing investments.

Why is it that biotech companies are better able to innovate and be more responsive? One reason may be that complexity is often encouraged by a large pharmaceutical organisation's hierarchical culture. In many companies, complexity becomes reassuring and comforting. The general consensus is that if an idea is complex and needs to be explained by masses of data, it must be clever, well thought-through, robust and have taken time and effort to create.

Simplicity is not about 'dumbing down' or skimming over the detail. On the contrary, it is about working through the detail to understand what matters. In many ways, it is harder to achieve simplicity than it is to achieve complexity. If you take some of the most successful ideas from any field, what shines through is the way that something inherently complex has been worked at to make it engaging and easy to understand: Einstein's law of relativity or the engineering of the Apple iPhone are well-worn examples of such beautiful simplicity.

No deviation
A good example of the power of simplicity at work is the Ryanair brand. Now the third-largest airline in Europe and the world's largest in terms of international passenger numbers, the idea that directs this brand, and that it communicates at every opportunity, is quite simply that it is 'the lowest-cost airline'. It never deviates from this message or from trying to drive down the base cost of flying. Some would argue that this is at the expense of all the enjoyment which, in itself, demonstrates the power of simplicity.

Ryanair looked at the market and the needs and frustrations of the customers in it, and chose to focus on those customer groups who put value ahead of comfort. Ryanair understands these consumers and doesn't try to appeal to anyone else. Indeed, the brand revels in the fact that not everyone likes it, because that just makes its message and identity stronger.

Offering a very different level of service is Ocado. Ocado provides the gold standard for shopping delivery by focusing on a more up-market customer segment. It understands the target customers' needs in detail and has identified what kind of service they will pay for. Based on this, it has built its brand around the idea of 'friendly reliability'. This idea drives everything about Ocado: the one-hour guaranteed delivery window, good customer services delivered by the man-in-the-van or via the phone, reliable regular text updates and customer guarantees, as well as its user-friendly website and phone applications. It even offers colour-coded bags. Everything is built with the purpose of delivering one simple idea.

Is this achievable in pharma?
It may be harder, but we believe achieving simplicity in pharma is possible and there are examples to prove it.

Cialis and Viagra are both examples of brands which demonstrate that simplicity is not just the privilege of the first treatment to market.

Viagra is truly explicit about communicating its core brand idea, especially in markets where advertising standards are less strict. The brand is very male-orientated, focusing on those patients who see erectile dysfunction as reducing their masculinity. In contrast to Viagra's brand idea of 'rediscovering your masculinity', the Cialis brand is built on the idea of 'be spontaneous', recognising that there are patients and couples who miss the spontaneity that is lost due to erectile dysfunction and its existing treatments. Both brands are driven by a clear and simple brand idea, derived from focusing on one well-understood customer target and consistently communicated through everything they do.

Whether by default or design, Avastin is also a brand that demonstrates the power of simplicity. At the core of the brand is the idea of 'progress equals success'. As an idea, it is one that resonates strongly in all areas of oncology where there is a desire to maximise both the quantity and quality of life that patients can enjoy. As a result, physicians have to make calculated choices when it comes to treatment – weighing up the potential benefits. What they lack is certainty and, in this environment, the idea of progress or 'breaking convention' gives greater confidence. This idea is maintained via a sustained succession of new trials and indication listings, as well as extensive use of real-world patient results in their communications and publications.

It could be claimed that Avastin had an unfair advantage in that it was developed by Genentech and, therefore, did not have to establish its product brand positioning in the shadow of its corporate brand. However, we would argue that such circumstances present all the more reason to strive for simplicity. Clearly, physicians and payers form opinions of a corporation's reputation, its trial design standards, its pricing and its previous successes and failures. To try to manage this at a product brand level just creates a cluttered and unfocused brand. Instead, by following the principles of simplicity, the objective should be to cut through this and clearly establish the value of the product.

Three steps
There is no process for achieving simplicity, rather – as we have already stated – simplicity can be achieved by ensuring the brand possesses three attributes:

1. Clarity of focus
2. A brutally simple idea at its heart
3. Relentlessly consistent execution.

Therapy areas are complex and treatments can offer a range of potential benefits, but that's why simple brands succeed: they stand out clearly; they are easy to understand and they make the choice easier for customers. Achieving simplicity is dependent on having clarity of focus. This comes from truly understanding:

• What makes your market and customers tick
• What drives customers – both rationally and emotionally
• What their needs, frustrations and fears are.

You also need to know your competitors as well as they know themselves – not just their data, but what space they are trying to own in the therapy area, how they are communicating this and how this might change. This amounts to having deep market insight, which can inspire the development of your brand idea by identifying truths and tensions in the market and the resulting challenge that the brand can address. However, insight on its own is not enough. Many brands have the insight, the understanding of market dynamics and their competitors, but they fail to make choices. Marketers need to decide which customers, insights and competitors are important and which can be left alone.

It may be a complicated road that leads to the 'big idea', which sits at the heart of your brand, but once it has been found, working at it until you have absolute simplicity is essential. Not only must the idea be relevant to your chosen customers and resonate with them, it also must be something that everyone understands and is inspired by, regardless of who they are. If you can't write your brand idea on a napkin so that your mum understands it, it's not simple enough.

If you enter any successful brand's offices and ask the first person that you see what their brand stands for, they'll know and be able to tell you how it has influenced the part of the operation they work on. Everybody understanding the idea and what the brand is about is just the start-point for ensuring consistency of execution. Once the idea has been created, everything the brand does must be consistent with that one big idea. Travel anywhere in the world and brands like Coca-Cola or Nike stand for the same things. The adverts or where you find the brand may differ, but they are always instantly recognisable. Consistency of both tone and message drives recognition and ensures that customers understand what your brand brings to the therapy area.

The successful pharmaceutical brands of the future will be those that understand and engage the power of simplicity, despite the complexity of the market in which they operate.

The Author
Richard Bates is European pharma lead at Clear

To comment on this article, email

9th December 2009


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