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Brand value

True, effective and consistent branding can be worth more than its weight in gold

A set of scales measuring 'brand'Earlier this year one of our European clients was challenged by Global on whether the product they were about to launch really needed to be branded. They came to us to help build the argument, raising an interesting debate in the process: in healthcare today, how much value can a brand add?

This is a big question. The first step is to think about what a brand actually is. What does it encompass? Everyone has his own idea, the most obvious being the logo. But a brand is much more than simply a logo, or even an ad campaign; really, a brand is the personification of a product. It is emotional, an attachment of significance that cannot be matched. This connection on the part of the consumer also allows the brand to act as a differentiator between products of the same class.

But can a brand really make a difference where it counts: on the bottom line? Apple, Nike and Microsoft are obvious examples of consumer brands. There is no disputing that their strong and distinctive branding contributes positively to the success of these companies' products. Intangible assets prove brands have a significant impact on marketing success; it doesn't seem a huge leap to conclude that a brand can bestow a product with qualities unattainable through other means.

Differentiating pharma brands
Marketing in the healthcare industry is of course distinct from mainstream marketing. Three major reasons for this come to mind, and the combination of these three is perhaps unique in the marketing world.

First is the lack of aspiration: no-one aspires to consume an ethical health brand. Ethical pharmaceuticals are fixer products at best: they are certainly not something any consumer would choose to engage with if he had the option.

The second differentiator in the healthcare market is the middle man: the end user himself rarely chooses which product to consume, meaning that any branding we do must be aimed not at the consumer but at the people with most influence over deciding what the consumer ends up with.

Finally, in many cases (and increasingly so), the highly technical products we are marketing are often thought to be on a different ethical plane 'above' branding.
I will consider each of these challenges in turn.

While people don't want to get sick, they do want to get better. In this way, health brands, while not 'aspirational', nevertheless have a significant impact on the end user's life, allowing the consumer to form a strong bond. Coupled with this is the fact that the general public is increasingly informed (although not necessarily well informed) about healthcare options, meaning the patient is more likely than previously to form a connection with the product, rather than (or in addition to) with the prescribing doctor. This emotional connection beyond the purely rational is one of the defining features of a brand over a product.

On this point, it is also important to note that any available information about a product contributes to the brand experience — whether or not this information has originated from the manufacturer. This demonstrates that the nature of the brand is important and the way we communicate about our product can affect a patient's perspective of it. If done well, this could help swing the brand towards a 'getting better' mindset rather than a 'being sick' mindset. If brands can act in this way, I don't see that lack of aspiration negates the need for a brand.

The middle man
Generally speaking, the target of branded communication — the doctor, nurse, pharmacist or payer — does not personally experience the product. But does this mean he is any less able to have a connection with it? If a prescriber believes that a particular drug works — he feels it is reliable and will help him save the day — that's a very strong emotional connection. We can't control this connection through branding (the product needs to be effective first), but we can influence or enhance it.

Giving a product a personality can help strengthen the bond a prescriber will develop from a good experience and give him something emotive to remember and interact with. From a product perspective, this can help bridge the gap between the middle man and the consumer — although the prescriber doesn't literally consume the product, he does have a relationship with it. He is still a user, just not the end user.

It is true that pharmaceutical products themselves are often highly technical. In some cases this in itself can be enough to differentiate a product, but this benefit is in most cases likely to be short-term, as new innovations are appearing all the time. What might start as a USP could end up being forgotten and surpassed by competitors if the product's only personality is the science of what it does.

Think about the most important decision you've ever made in your life — was it exclusively rational? What about what you had for lunch today? Most decisions, from the trivial to the life-changing, have a balance between rational and emotional factors. This balance may well be different when making decisions about pharmaceuticals, where necessity rather than desire is the driving force, but they still need a bit of both rational and emotional factors to anchor and strengthen the connection. However technical the product, it can still benefit from a brand to help it come to life, and to live for longer.

The role of branding in pharma
Having examined each of these challenges to pharma branding in detail, they do not appear to disrupt the normal brand dynamic as much as we often suspect they might. Although the healthcare environment is different from other marketing environments, and perhaps unique, there is still an important role for branding. The role may be slightly different, and the brand may work in different ways, but the concept is just as valid as in any other industry.

The word 'brand' definitely means something in healthcare marketing, as evidenced by the fact that we use it all the time — brand strategy, brand planning, brand positioning, brand personality, brand essence... but what exactly is the 'brand' bit? Do we really consider the true sense of the brand in all this, or do we actually just think about strategy, planning, positioning, personality and essence?

For a brand really to be a brand, it needs to flow across everything, by which I mean that all communications to all audiences should follow the same theme and point in the same direction — even non-branded communications can follow the brand. This is not to suggest everyone breaches the ABPI Code of Conduct, but merely to point out that the tone and values of what the brand represents should be able to come through in the way we communicate, regardless of medium or audience. And with the world getting smaller and more connected, a consistent brand is becoming even more important.

Be true to your brand
Branding certainly can benefit pharmaceutical products, but all too often it doesn't. I believe what most often gets in the way is that we're not being true to what a brand really is. Having a brand means you stand for something, and that in itself can sometimes be the problem. It is easy to neglect the brand and focus on short-term, isolated initiatives that don't necessarily all point in the same direction, but to be a true brand you need to live by it. The check and balance for any marketing initiative should be, 'Is it true to the brand?'

We rarely do this properly. It's not enough to add the logo to every page of a detail aid and give out some pens and post-its. To achieve real brand success, and to get the maximum from the product as a result, we need to live and breathe it. Lots of reasons are given for why branding isn't effective, but most of them are excuses that in truth are not barriers to brand effectiveness. If we are honest, we are what limits the success of a brand, by not giving it the respect it deserves. A brand can only give us what we want if we nurture it and give it what it needs from us — consistency and unfaltering support.

Our industry is moving forward, the relationship between marketers and customers is no longer static. We are moving beyond the traditional sales rep model towards more engaging, interactive, inclusive initiatives. This is the perfect opportunity to afford our customers the chance truly to experience the brand, not just to see it. We need to be disciplined enough to let the brand do its stuff. This means working out what you stand for and what you offer, and not allowing the brand to run off track at any small distraction. It can be hard work to keep on top of it, to ensure it is staying relevant and motivating and all the things that make a good brand, but the rewards for doing this can be invaluable.

The Author
Katherine Cotton is group account director at Sudler London.

To comment on this article, email

7th October 2010


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