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The latest IMS thinking shows that a simple and consistent corporate face will enhance the power of marketing

Companies are, increasingly, recognising the importance of positive image in the achievement of business objectives and remaining competitive. The pharmaceutical marketplace continues to become more cut-throat, with companies extolling the virtues of their own products and services at the same time as denigrating those of their competitors. As drug classes grow, with companies seemingly unperturbed by the sheer volume of competition already available in a therapeutic area, prescribing decisions must be made on criteria beyond those of efficacy and cost. This article brings together the marketing concepts of corporate image and interprets how they might apply to the pharmaceutical industry. It describes an example of promotional equity research and suggests an approach to managing corporate image through effective communication with both internal and external stakeholders.

The theory behind the measurement of corporate image is that a healthy reputation acts, to a certain extent, as a suppressor of risk and encourages brand loyalty, thereby resulting in an increase in sales. How company image and loyalty translate to the pharma industry, however, is less straightforward. The basic structure of the pharmaceutical industry has many similarities with other industries, suggesting that concepts can be transferred. However, there are industry-specific critical success factors, which are unique and not always within the control of the organisation.

Overall corporate image can be seen as a product of a company's identity, image, reputation and personality. It is the strategic management of these factors that will determine success, or failure, in the control of image in the eyes of an organisation's stakeholders. Corporate identity refers to the characteristics determining what makes a company what it is, while its image is the way in which stakeholders perceive an organisation, as a result of its internal and external communications. These may be deliberate (such as an advertisement placed in an industry journal) or accidental (such as media articles).

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Corporate reputation is more difficult to define and has a number of contexts depending on the journal or theory referred to. Most commonly, reputation reflects a collective or common evaluation of the esteem in which a company's image is held. Corporate personality and identity are inexorably linked, since a company can portray its identity to its stakeholders, but if it does not fully understand its underlying personality, the result may culminate in an inability to reconcile differing identities. Definition of corporate personality therefore requires considerable self-analysis and an appreciation of collective strengths and weaknesses in order that the identities are not confused.

Figure 1 (see below), reproduced from the European Journal of Marketing, clarifies the link between these components of corporate image and suggests an approach to their strategic management.

In unison
Pharmaceutical firms have a wide variety of stakeholders, from their own employees through the medical profession and regulatory authorities to the general public. Each stakeholder will experience a different series of encounters with the company, thereby forming their own images of that company's characteristics.

A typical stumbling block in the management of these separate images is a fragmented view by the internal stakeholders of a company. If employees do not have a unified vision of the desired strategy, then the message relayed to external stakeholders will also be confused. It is not possible, however, to control the images held of an organisation in an individual's mind. Management can only hope to achieve a uniformed image in the eyes of its stakeholders through control of its identity.

Management wishing to form a strategy to manage or control corporate image should be viewing each and every contact with both internal and external stakeholders as an opportunity to define behaviours and therefore communicate the vision of its reputation as the `ideal' pharmaceutical company.

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What makes satisfaction?
The first step in this strategic development comprises a thorough understanding of the current situation. Today, many organisations conduct employee surveys at management- and non-management levels, as well as corporate image or identity research. The use of the same quantitative research methods directed at all stakeholders of an organisation will rule out bias by any one individual's experiences and provide results that can be evaluated across the spectrum of internal and external customers.

There are various methods and providers of company equity research in the pharmaceutical arena. One such example is a promotional equity study conducted and released by IMS Health in August 2006. Focusing on 10 of the UK's leading pharma companies, the study aims to provide an understanding of the drivers behind customer satisfaction, to help companies improve their customer loyalty.

The study is based on the theoretical model that prescribing choice results from a combination of:

1. Values of the product: all aspects related to a product's features, such as efficacy, tolerability and compliance

2. Relationship with the company: all aspects related to the firm's prestige, such as reliability and attention to a doctor's needs

3. Promotional style: all aspects related to the promotional pressure and style.

Evaluation parameters are aggregated on the basis of satisfaction drivers: importance (company size, tradition, involvement in scientific research), closeness (proposes many events for GPs, develops lots of useful initiatives and services, is friendly) and rep support (answers product-related questions effectively, adjusts interactions to suit my needs and so forth).

Companies are benchmarked against each other for the overall satisfaction drivers, but also for each individual characteristic defined as making up the satisfaction drivers. This information identifies where in the continuum of satisfaction, and also in the context of its competitors, an organisation is perceived by its external stakeholders to sit. However, it is the strategy developed and actions taken as a result of these data that will make the difference to the company image in the long term.

This promotional equity study provides an opportunity for the biggest company brands to benchmark themselves against each other in an unbiased manner, on a variety of industry-specific criteria. It also allows smaller company brands to identify which critical success factors are important in the eyes of their stakeholders in the making of an `ideal' pharmaceutical company.

Certain characteristics will be difficult to affect or influence - country affiliates, for example, are unlikely to be able to influence the number or type of clinical trials being undertaken, nor can a company increase its size to improve its image of importance. However, closeness and rep support are, on the whole, within the control of the local company, whether that is a local affiliate, or regional or global headquarters. Reps consider their role to be communication of a product's key selling points, yet how aware are salesforces of the impact their individual appearance and demeanour has on the collective perception of a company's image and reputation?

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Find the inside track
Company image research is often conducted on an annual basis, allowing comparison over time of the success of the organisation in altering the perception of the medical profession. Employed at a regional or global level, this approach could be regarded as a useful measurement tool to compare the esteem in which local affiliates are held by their customers.

Alternatively, it could be viewed as the starting block from which communication strategies are devised at a local level to ensure that corporate and local messages are being delivered and received correctly and adequately.

There are opportunities for organisations to gain a competitive advantage by identifying those characteristics where the standard of all companies falls below the sufficiency threshold. In the IMS promotional equity study, all companies analysed were found to fall in, or below, the definition of `sufficient' in terms of rep support. Breaking down this broad definition into its component parts (ie, varies the product message according to my needs, answers my product-related questions effectively, is a valuable source of information about treatment decisions etc), identifies which of the specific rep support characteristics are the most important to UK GPs. Such information would put a company ahead of its competition, if it was able to improve the perception delivered by its reps.

Key points - to remember
The first step, therefore, in managing corporate image is to conduct the research, preferably keeping measurement criteria similar for internal and external stakeholders so that attitudes and images can be compared. Self-analysis and recognition of the company's personality will ensure that the desired reputation is achievable. Identifying those characteristics within the control of the firm is key to defining a strategy that builds certain images in the eyes of the customer.

Communication messages, internally and externally, should be kept simple and consistent to ensure that the front line contacts with customers are relaying the same message of company identity as management and marketing. Defining objectives of the research, along with an outline action plan addressing various outcomes, will ensure that the research conducted will meet expectations and achieve the goals set out by the firm. At the end of the day, however, the answer lies in a determination to effect change; the ability to communicate a simple and consistent vision of the company's identity passionately to all stakeholders. This must start with the company and radiate through employees to the external customers. Above all, maintenance of reputation is essential. It may be difficult to build, but it is even harder to repair.

The author
Claire Edwards is a senior consultant at IMS Management Consulting

2nd September 2008

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