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What can pharma learn from Olympic sports coverage?

Pharma companies should look to 'own' therapy areas in the way Sky Sports aims to own sports

Remote control - sport on television“All television is educational television. The question is: what is it teaching?” said Nicholas Johnson, author of How to Talk Back to Your Television Set. In the case of Sky, and specifically Sky Sports, it might be teaching us some valuable lessons in brand building.

The company's strategy has essentially been to 'own' sport in the UK and it has been hugely successful in doing so – in both a figurative and very real sense. How has the company achieved this? What can the pharma industry learn from its strategies? Could such a strong brand link to health be achieved? And what would the benefit be?

Let us look at Sky Sports as a case study. The biggest competitions in sport, including high profile events like Premier League football, test match cricket, Premiership rugby, golf's PGA Tour and Ryder Cup, and Grand Slam tennis all sit within the channel's portfolio alongside more minority sports like volleyball, speedway and netball. Essentially if you want to watch the major tournaments in almost any sport then Sky is usually the only option – it truly is 'the home of sport' its advertising claims.

In terms of demonstrating brand building, the most obvious example is football, the company's crown jewel. Sky's huge financial backing has been a major factor in the rebranding of the English Premier League (EPL), making it one of the most popular and attractive sports competitions in the world, watched by billions across the globe (and making millionaires of many mediocre professional footballers along the way).

The channel has not been shy in inextricably linking the dual brands of the EPL and Sky Sports. In fact, its coverage appears to have has erased any football league history before the EPL's launch in 1992. It is as if the mighty Leeds and Liverpool sides of the 70s and 80s never existed and all the glory lies in the Sky Sports years.

Cycling is an even more interesting story -  it is not just a sport; it's a strategy for Sky. As Bradley Wiggins from the Sky Pro team wins the Tour de France, the media company hopes its association with the sport will earn it premium position in the minds of its customers and employees alike.

Sky's plan is to weave cycling through every part of the business, from marketing and PR through to employee performance and sustainability (although I am not quite sure where Formula 1, Sky's latest addition to its roster fits with the environmental sustainability goal). In cycling its aim is to 'own' the sport, from the professional team that bears its name to families out for a Sunday morning bike ride. The strap line “inspiration to participation” is being used to demonstrate its commitment to the professional and amateur side of cycling.

It has also invested in the Sky Ride scheme to achieve its aim of getting a million extra people cycling regularly by the end of 2013. Sky plans to get more of its staff cycling to work, cutting the company's emissions and making staff healthier and happier. It runs cycle clubs during lunchtime for employees and also lends them bikes to enable them to decide if they wish to take up cycling on a more regular basis.

It is an honourable aim in this age of obesity but one firmly founded in commercial rationale. Sky's own market research estimates that over 3m adults feel more favourable towards its brand because of these initiatives than before they knew about them and that this positive brand image will translate into increased subscriptions.

And don't think that because the BBC is the official broadcaster of London 2012, Sky won't be cashing in on the opportunity of sport being the biggest ticket in town this summer. Such initiatives as Sky Ride and its 'Get Involved' campaign to encourage participation in sport have a distinctly Olympic feel.

Sky Sports is an interesting analogy for the pharma industry. The obvious links between sport and health makes pharma companies highly relevant as participants and sponsors of just such initiatives and the positive brand image gained from such activities would be highly beneficial to an industry whose corporate reputation could certainly be improved. It is interesting to see GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) working as an Olympic partner providing a 24-hour doping service at its laboratory in Harlow. The accompanying corporate marketing campaign, which features British athletes such as triple jumper Phillips Idowu, will “highlight the role that science will play in keeping the London 2012 Games clean”, GSK has said.

Can you imagine a company like Pfizer or GSK running a campaign to be the world's first non-smoking company and the message that would send on respiratory leadership? But sponsorship and campaigns are one thing - is it really possible for a pharma company to create such a strong brand linkage to health or a specific therapy area?

I have often heard GSK's activities in the respiratory field described as 'acting as if it owns the market' and maybe it does. Over the years, the corporation has built a wealth of knowledge in the field, and built and maintained a leading portfolio of respiratory products from Ventolin in 1969 through to Seretide, Advair and beyond. And it has successfully built and shaped market knowledge and perceptions to both its benefit and that of the medical community. Just like Sky Sports, it behaves and is perceived as a leader in the field which puts the company in an incredibly strong competitive position.

And even within a complex and highly heterogeneous therapy area like oncology, Roche has built a successful franchise and a diverse portfolio with pharmaceutical, diagnostic, and biotech arms.  This was already in place prior to Roche paying $47bn to acquire the 44 per cent of its biotech superstar partner Genentech it didn't already own, with sales of Avastin and Herceptin already accounting for 40 per cent of Roche's revenues in 2010 through the existing collaboration.

So where could Roche go next? With its unsuccessful takeover bid for Illumina, it could be a move into genetic sequencing to augment their oncology capability and more besides. This is very much a long-term play into the future of diagnostics; genome sequencing fast enough and cheap enough to become a consumer reality.

Roche has the capability to make it happen. The company is familiar with the likely requirements of regulatory bodies such as the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). It has got marketing channels into the medical community, and it has got the research base to help translate emerging genomic discoveries into clinical information and personalised treatments in development. If personalised healthcare is going to expand beyond specialised cancer treatments, companies like Roche will lead the way since they have all the tools to translate the genome into mainstream medicine. If successful, Roche might 'own' more than just oncology.

Looping back to where we started, television was once also described as 'the drug of the nation'. By harnessing market, brand and knowledge power who will be in the prime position to produce the most successful drugs of the future?


The Author

David Coleiro is a Partner at Strategic North, a healthcare marketing strategy consultancy that works with their clients to build inspiring, joined-up strategic stories.

7th August 2012

7th August 2012


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