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When art meets science

Brand Learning's Nina Holdaway argues there is both art and science to consumer insight

Art meets scienceToday there are few major companies that do not have a consumer insight department. In recent years insight has become a vital component of business practice and it is likely to play an increasingly important role.  Despite this, understanding of the discipline can be unclear. Definitions of insight range from the 'a-ha!' moment to a more rigorous, evidence-based understanding of changing behaviours and needs. No matter the exact definition, the fundamental idea is that there is real value in discovering more about your customers, regardless of the industry in which you work.

One might have thought, given that scientists are indelibly associated with the concept of discovery and sudden insight (Archimedes shouting 'Eureka!' and running down the street), that organisations with a strong scientific bias would understand the fundamental role of the discipline better than most. However, insight is nothing if it isn't used to drive organisational change. My experience at Brand Learning is that a strong scientific culture can in some cases act as a barrier to effective change.

In fact, nowhere is this more of a challenge than in the pharma industry.

Ahead of the game
Building a more customer-focused organisation has become a key strategic priority for pharma businesses in recent years. Thanks to less productive R&D departments, patent issues, increased competition across therapy areas and longer, more expensive development schedules – to name just a few of the industry's current issues – commercial pressures have been building. These pressures have been compounded by the widespread economic and financial uncertainty of the last few years.

A squeeze on consumer spending has meant more than ever that brands need to focus on delivering to consumer needs. Innovation is taken as a given and is expected to go hand-in-hand with great value for money and acknowledgement of a range of issues such as corporate social responsibility.

As a result, understanding the interrelated needs of patients, prescribers and payers, as well as other customer groups has become an increasingly important driver of competitive advantage, pushing insight and marketing to the heart of the corporate agenda.

For pharma organisations, it's useful to think of insight as the 'think tank' within. The nature and structure of the industry, with its lengthy drug development cycles, is such that the understanding and practice of insight needs a large element of foresight. It should involve building a credible and engaging vision of the future, based on a comprehensive review of potential influences on the company's business, to develop strategies that open up opportunities for the longer term (over a timeframe of at least five years).

Being two steps ahead of the game can mean the difference between success and failure.

It's important to recognise that the opportunities captured in some insights are focused further out in the future than others. At Brand Learning we believe that because of its strategic importance, consumer insight must be oriented to the future and, as the Future Foundation notes, be 'gatekeeper to the future strategy and direction of the organisation'.

Working insightfully
So what continues to hold many pharma marketers back? As in many businesses, not confined to the pharma sector, there is a notable lack of the core processes and skills needed to ensure that systematic insight generation and application are at the heart of business activity. For example:

•  The term insight itself may be overused and is often misunderstood, as noted previously, becoming an ill-defined panacea

•  Insight generation involves a difficult balance between 'everybody all the time' and 'specific teams at specific times'. Getting clarity on this balance of roles is often a source of confusion

•  Through a lack of integration with other processes, insight generation sometimes lacks a clear sense of purpose or direction, such as driving new brand positioning or generating customer-focused solutions to a key business issue

•  A clear, simple and practical process for consistently and systematically turning voluminous customer data into relevant, practical insights is often missing – insights only rarely come like 'bolts from the blue'; more often they develop out of a rigorous process.

All the above plays a part in minimising the value and application of insight, but in our experience the fundamental issue in the pharma sector may be one of culture – the attitudes, beliefs and values that drive what people in the sector think and how they work on a day-to-day basis.

A culture challenge
Pharma marketing has traditionally attracted people with a strong scientific background, with their focus fixed firmly on the product and the science behind it.

For a long time, competitive differentiation in pharma has relied on using scientific data relating to product efficacy, safety and tolerability to address obvious unmet medical needs. The priority has been to find proof of scientific hypotheses using data produced in clinical trials, designed to identify statistical differences between carefully designed populations of patients.

In this context, it's easy to appreciate why companies in the sector tend to rely heavily on quantitative market research data and don't fully address some of the more qualitative questions that really matter to patients, such as: "What is it like to suffer from this problem? How does it affect your ability to communicate, your relationships with friends and loved ones, your hobbies, working life and aspirations?"

This emotional territory is where the needs and decisions of both patients and medical health professionals will often be grounded and is where core insights may be found. However, the problem is that it's not where product scientists may be used to operating. The root issue here is one of mindset and the key challenge is to balance scientific and analytical perspectives with more creative and emotional capabilities.

An empathetic approach (putting yourself 'into the mind of the customer') is invaluable for generating consumer insight. But pharma end-users tend not to be interested in the technical elements of a given product so much as what it can do to make their lives easier.

Developing a solution
To put the customer at the heart of any business, the single most important factor is ensuring that the senior business leaders truly believe that superior insight, well implemented, will drive competitive advantage. It is their role to champion customer focus within the business and to establish and embed the appropriate organisational capabilities and culture.

There are some essential building blocks. An insight is not the same as a research finding and neither can it always be found in an obvious place. Clarity on what insight really means is crucial, distinguishing between different aspects such as customer data, segmentation, specific customer insights and general 'insightfulness'.

It is critically important to develop practical insight generation tools and a common language that everyone can understand and use, as well as making sure insight application is hard-wired into other business processes, such as strategic planning and communication development.

Change of mindset
For the pharma industry in particular, our experience would suggest some further ways to help address some of the cultural obstacles and drive a better understanding of customer insight within all parts of the business:

1. Set a customer-focused agenda

•  Create a clear and inspiring vision for the organisation, which explains why focusing on customers is important and how insights can drive competitive advantage

•  Challenge the perception that insight is something you do at the start of a strategic project. It's a way of thinking, working and behaving at all times

•  Shift the role of market researchers from simply running market research projects and supplying data for the marketing department. It's vital to build their capability to facilitate greater customer orientation, understanding and connection throughout the entire business.
 
2. Engage creative energy

•  Ensure that any capability development initiative strikes a balance between establishing new processes or tools and a new mindset that embraces imagination and intuition

•  Explore with teams what it means to develop an insightful culture where people naturally exhibit a curiosity to understand customers at a deeper level

•  Recruit marketers from other industry sectors to provide fresh perspectives and different experience and personality profiles

•  Insist that cross-functional team members have regular direct contact with customers, ideally in their natural environment, rather than with the inherent limitations of a focus group or an interview

•  Make the most of myriad new online opportunities to connect with customers using social networks and innovative market research techniques.

3. Realism about change

•  Accept that becoming more customer-focused is a significant change management challenge, in terms of employee engagement, stakeholder management and embedding mechanisms. This requires dedicated resources and takes time.

Competitive advantage
Companies in the pharmaceutical sector have access to a wealth of data, but only some of it will be of value when it comes to understanding customers and developing insight.

It's not just market research, it's about building competitive advantage from knowing what customers want and need, as well as how they behave, and using the information to drive strategy and bring about organisational change.

What we can say with absolute confidence is that, in an industry as dynamic as this one, the companies that invest to establish competitive advantage through their customer insight capabilities stand to be the future winners within the sector.

Nina HoldwayThe Author
Nina Holdaway
is a commercially orientated international marketer with 15 years' experience of managing brands in the UK and the rest of Europe. She started her career with Unilever as a graduate trainee in Holland and after five years moved to Heinz in the UK, where she spent six years in strategic marketing.

At Brand Learning, Nina works as a group account director in the FMCG, pharmaceutical, telecoms, technology and automotive industries. Her predominant focus for the last two years has been leading the development and roll-out of the AZ Global Marketing Capability Programme

To comment on this article, email pm@pmlive.com

9th February 2011

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