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Learn to fly

Media neutral ideas can take brands to new heights

A model aeroplane as thrown by a childThanks to a rapidly changing marketplace in which traditional and trusted methods of communication have been found wanting, pharma marketers are in serious danger of losing their relationship with customers. It is no longer a case of evolution; there is now a need for a totally new approach.

A research programme recently completed by Strata Research revealed not only that the role of pharma marketers is changing rapidly, but also that they are confused about how best to move forward.

The confusion stems from a range of issues including an increase in audiences; a decrease in salesforces; an explosion in communications options; and a fall in communications budgets.

With dwindling field force numbers, existing materials such as detail aids aren't achieving the same coverage as before. Consequently, there is a need to explore new ways to communicate. Yet there isn't the time to explore all the new media options to discover the best way to reach more audiences on a smaller budget.

Formerly, the field force's relationships with customers added value to the brand, giving back respect and service to valued customers in return for their loyalty. Now a number of brands are finding they can afford close relationships with just a few key customers and KOLs. As a result, the bulk of the customer base rarely interacts with the brand.

Cumulatively, this distance is dangerous for pharma. The paucity of customer engagement makes brand differentiation difficult to achieve, threatens a company's position on product price and does little to engender brand loyalty.

'Brand experience' marketing
Pharma is not the first industry to grapple with these issues: FMCG firms have been facing similar scenarios for years and fortunately for pharma have already found a solution.

A decade ago, successful consumer brands saw the cost of TV advertising rise far faster than their budgets. Added to this, marketers were faced with a plethora of communication channels with little or no guidance as to how much of the old marketing mix they should retain, how much should be dedicated to new channels and how they should tie it all together.

Out of this maelstrom arose 'brand experience' marketing. This offers customers a fully interactive brand experience that is more engaging and present across a wide range of media, accessible at a time that suits the audience and which reinforces the brand's claims in interesting and relevant ways.

Red Bull, for example, could be just another energy drink brand, but thanks to brand experience marketing it has become a global success. The many different ways in which it interacts with its customers serve as a constant reminder of its core promise, epitomised in the advertising line 'Red Bull gives you wings'.

Most major consumer brands now employ some element of brand experience marketing. This allows them to cement their relationship with the customer base through a multimedia approach. Sometimes customers will come face-to-face with the a brand, but more frequently they experience the brand through an event or via a channel provided by the brand.

For example, Disney has created Disney World; TV programmes like Britain's Got Talent have websites and extra behind-the-scenes programmes, and Marmite ran its Love it/Hate it campaign to coincide with the run-up to the General Election, as well as providing 'fan club' websites and memorabilia.

As these examples illustrate, this new kind of relationship is two-way, not static. Customers interact with the brand and the company behind it, and they expect to receive responses. If they feel they are not getting something worthwhile back, the more cynical and demanding customer will simply move on.

Pharma is already conducting relationship marketing in many senses, through congress attendance, ad boards, regional meetings and the work of the remaining salesforce. However, these initiatives tend not to be organised around a core promotional idea designed to span a multimedia campaign: the elements are often created separately and are united only by a brand logo or global visual.

Two important things are missing:
1. A media neutral communications idea first to create, then to unite, the brand experiences
2. A media neutral planning system to design the mix of media around the individual customer's needs and behaviours.

The value of media neutrality
Over the last few years, pharma companies have tried to achieve a uniform global brand image by using the same visuals, but as many of the newer media are not visually driven, this approach simply isn't enough. The strategy is also limiting. An image used for several years — sometimes more — becomes visual wallpaper, no longer conveying a brand message and serving only as a sort of brand logo. This is fine if the brand's marketplace and therefore its communication objectives never change, but this is rarely the case.

Too often in pharma, marketers run healthcare professional support and patient support programmes for a brand under different name, then they wonder why this activity, which s disconnected from the main campaign, is not seen as supportive.

A cohesive media neutral idea that unites all activities forms a link between patient and product messaging that runs deeper than a line or a logo — it unites both to support the core concept that the brand is promoting.

A media neutral idea is not a headline or a brand essence or a single visual of happy old people on a beach. And is has nothing in common with the ideas global pharma has of what constitutes brand building.

A media neutral idea, like 'Red Bull gives you wings', is rooted in the core benefit of the product, but can inspire a multitude of creative ideas. Rather than being tied to a single visual, agencies are free to apply their creativity to extol the virtues of a brand, and communications agencies can create a range of ads or run a series of meetings aligned to the theme.

Most importantly, this approach is more interesting to the target audience; it gives the campaign stopping power and is more likely to ensure that your core message are retained.

It is far better to convince an audience of your appeal by running engaging and interesting communications rather than browbeating them into submission. An intelligent audience, like medics, will resist simple message repetition.However, a brand using constant updates based around a media neutral idea that engages the audience won't fall foul of this.

The media neutral idea ensures that the campaign is continuously refreshed and the audience will consume it willingly many times, instead of rejecting it for not being new or interesting. Increasingly, audiences choose what they listen to, so unless it is interesting, your message will not be consumed.


The old method of communicating

Brand key
An arrow pointing right Choice of media An arrow pointing right Audience receives
and responds




The new method of communicating







A double-ended arrow A double-ended arrow A double-ended arrow


Medium A double-ended arrow

Audience self-selects
and comments

A double-ended arrow Medium


A double-ended arrow


A double-ended arrow







Implementing the system

The other part of the equation is building a plan to carry the idea through to your audience. The key to success is to design your media planning with the customer and his behaviour in mind, then use a media neutral planning system to design the best mix of media. This way the budget will work as hard as possible for you.

By adopting media neutral planning marketers can analyse the needs of the brand versus the market and develop a plan that reflects the way the brand is portrayed, carrying the right messages to the right audiences and engaging them in the process.

To cite an early consumer example, when Cadbury found it could no longer afford to produce TV ads for all its brands, it chose to move the majority of its money over to the sponsorship of Coronation Street. Cadbury then rotated the screen idents between different brands as brand objectives dictated. The campaign was hugely successful.

The media neutral planning process will be partly influenced by the needs of the brand, partly by audience behaviours and partly by the media neutral communications idea (as the concept may be more appropriate for some media than others).

Such a system creates a more scientific approach to the choice of media and the allocation of budget, giving the brand team a better way to evaluate its agencies' suggestions.

With a media neutral idea, clients gain control of the direction of the work, not just the execution of it. This means that they receive interesting ideas that build the brand positioning in a customer-centric way, strengthening its relationship with customers. It also means that agencies find it easier to work together: they all use the same blueprint from which to develop the message and create materials, so their work is complementary, not conflicting. In the end, the client gains control and has happier agencies producing more interesting work that has a greater effect on the target audience.

Media neutrality in both ideas and in planning builds a stronger brand experience, which in turn helps rebuild those important relationships that are otherwise waning.

The accelerating pace of change and the resulting switch to this new approach could end up being the best thing that has happened to pharma marketing in a long time.


Case Study: ChloraPrep

A media neutral planning process creates a win–win situation for clients and agencies. For example, we worked with Carefusion to create a theme that would run through all materials, which worked at a level above the efficacy and safety information, to make the messaging more relevant and powerful to the target audience. We realised that although the brand (ChloraPrep) had excellent data to prove its worth in cleaning the patient's skin, the audience did not believe that cleaning the patient's skin was a major problem.

We therefore created a media neutral idea for the campaign 'Skin is the source'. The campaign educated, sold and explained at every stage that many circulatory infections come from bugs on the patient's skin. This concept has worked well across different media — from literature to websites, to stands to an educational video on YouTube — as it is so evocative.

Although it was already an excellent product, sales of ChloraPrep have been helped by a campaign theme that rose above product features and used a strong media neutral idea to make itself more relevant to the user. ChloraPrep is now, after only four years, used in over 90 per cent of UK hospitals and in the majority of line insertions — proof of the campaign's effectiveness.


The Author
Dominic Owens is the planning director at Seven Stones

To comment on this article, email

15th July 2010


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