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Free spirit

Liberating creativity from process can result in maximum impact for brand positioning

A ballet dancerAre better brands really created through adopting best practice and bringing a more professional approach to brand positioning? Some in the pharmaceutical industry would argue that, in many cases, despite spending considerable time and money on improving their marketing capabilities and learning how to create 'world-class brands', pharmaceutical marketers still struggle to develop truly differentiated brand ideas.

Pharmaceutical marketers have long recognised the benefit of brand marketing to help support their product's value proposition and gain sales by differentiating them clearly in the marketplace. To their credit, many pharmaceutical companies have been open to learning as much as they can from outside their sector, looking to brand powerhouses like Diageo and Unilever to define best practice. This has led many to focus their efforts on developing their own 'best-in-class' brand development processes.

Such processes do provide a useful framework for building brands and sit well with the predominant scientific, rational, cultures within these organisations. However, the unfortunate truth is that many of these 'best in class' processes are more orientated towards delivering against internal governance goals and procedures. This means marketers do more but think less, resulting in them developing less engaging brand ideas. 

The reality, even for the likes of Diageo and Unilever, is that process can never provide more than a foundation for the development of a great brand. Great brand ideas are not created through diligent process compliance or being an ever more professional marketer. Diageo and Unilever have developed some great market-leading brands, such as Johnnie Walker, Guinness, Dove and Axe, but so, too, have many organisations that take a far less 'professional' approach to brand development. The common factor is that the successes are all generated by marketers with more creative minds and aptitudes. Arguably, it is brains, not processes, that create great brands.

At its most basic level, a brand is a navigational tool, designed to help customerss make choices and lead them to identify one brand as best able to meet their needs.

However, in pharmaceutical markets, as in most sectors, it is increasingly hard to find clear functional differentiation between brands. If it does exist, it is often short-lived, or limited to a very specific aspect of the product and therefore not sufficiently substantive to make a difference.

Consequently, the greatest opportunity to create a clearly differentiated, defendable brand and gain competitive advantage is to focus on patients' and/or physicians' emotional needs.

Defining these needs in any given treatment situation is complex. They cannot be elicited from research in the same definitive, linear way as functional needs. They need to be derived from multiple sources; from reading between the lines and drawing connections between disparate facts.

To bring together these insights to define a brand's emotional space, and then create a brand idea to express how the product fills it, requires a more creative, problem-solving mindset. This cannot be achieved by carefully following a process and working hard to find the best ideas to fill each template, however good. It requires a different mindset, in the same way that, while a logical, deductive approach will solve a Sudoku puzzle, it will not help with a cryptic crossword. But how do you achieve this?

Based on the experience of over 60 pharmaceutical branding projects, those teams that are better able to detach themselves from their company's process and templates are able to create more successful and engaging brand ideas. These teams have avoided developing 'box blindness': relying on process to steer them through brand creation and using boxes on the required brand templates to guide their thinking. Instead they have, quite literally, been able to think outside the box, and focus on what really matters when developing a brand, ensuring their idea is as differentiating and compelling as possible.

A stronger idea starts with a clear definition of the problem. What is required is an emotional need that the brand can be perceived to fulfil better than any other product. It must be a need important enough to the customers that if a brand presents a compelling proposition (ie supported by a credible functional rationale), they will change their behaviour and choose your brand over others.

In order to identify and clearly articulate such needs, more time and effort must be focused on understanding potential customers and less on the perceived benefits of the product. What drives customers, both rationally and emotionally? What are their needs, frustrations and fears?

Understand what choices customers have by getting to know your competitors as well as they know themselves. This encompasses not just their data, but what needs they are trying to own in the therapy area, how they are communicating them and foreseeing how their approach may change over time.

All of this amounts to having a deep market insight; insight that can inspire the development of the brand idea by better defining what the brand will resolve for customers. This clear focus is best achieved by treating insight as a permanent state of mind and not a stage in the process, and by using market research to inspire and inform thinking, rather than relying on it to define the answer. 

However, insight on its own is not enough. Many brands have the insight, they understand the market dynamics and their competitors, but they fail to make choices. Which customers, insights and needs are important and which can be left alone? A brand needs a single, clearly defined target.


An insightful mind looks to discover:

Misconceptions – things that customers believe are true but which are not true at all

Contradictions – things that customers say or believe which contradict their actual behaviour or vice versa

Tensions and Frustrations – things that do not work or are missing and are unmet rational or emotional needs

Loves and passions – things that your customers really love about a market or a brand

Make shifting – solutions that customers patch together because there is no product or service that gives them exactly what they want

Compromises – identifying the compromises or trade-offs that customers regularly make

Total turnaround – something that reverses an existing view of the market or situation completely, destroying myths or preconceptions


Challenge customers
Once they have identified their target, brand teams are typically tasked with developing a brand positioning idea that is 'unique, differentiating and credible'. All too often, this leads to ideas that simply present the brand as 'better than' or 'new'. What they need are brand ideas that challenge and disrupt customers' thinking, through what they stand for, or how they are executed, or both. Brand teams need to be braver, and to recognise that it is only by challenging a customer's thinking that a brand can create an imperative for them to act differently.

Challenger brands are not a new idea. However, they are often seen as the exception rather than the rule, in the preserve of brands trying to compete with a well-established, dominant market leader, like Avastin, for example. Yet the reality for most new pharmaceutical brands is that they are entering markets with no substantial product differentiation. They are also trying to convince customers of their value derived from a host of complex data comparisons and mode of action explanations. In this environment, they need a brand idea and brand executions that are capable of simply and powerfully conveying their value in a way that stands out to, and resonates with, their chosen target customers. This is best achieved by encouraging brand teams to be brave, and giving them the freedom to do less, think more and be more creative.

This article is not suggesting in any way that all processes should be ignored. Having a framework is useful, particularly in explaining the process to non-marketers in the organisation. The danger lies in believing that the process is the answer. As the functional differentiation between products gets narrower and regulatory cost reduction pressure on the sector increases, brand teams will have to become more inventive to differentiate their products and justify their value propositions. Processes do not engender inventiveness.

To be more creative, marketers are going to need freedom from, and the skills to become less reliant on, the templates and procedures that come with 'world-class' brand building processes. The payback will be twofold; more compelling, better-differentiated brand ideas capable of delivering greater competitive advantage and sales from a given marketing spend, and a reduction in the cost of brand development.

Instead of expecting marketers to understand what comprises a good insight and a good brand idea, simply through diligently following each and every process stage, huge efficiencies can be made by enabling them to understand what these insights look like and then giving them the freedom to pursue them.

No two brand-development projects are the same. Therefore, unnecessary steps can be skipped, and the scale and scope of those that remain can be tailored to deliver exactly what is required to move the thinking forward.
Pharmaceutical companies must identify who in their marketing organisations have the right skills and aptitudes to bring the most out of their brand processes, and then use them as specialists to lead their brand development processes forward.

The Author
Richard Bates is European pharmaceutical lead at Clear

To comment on this article, email


31st March 2010


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