Why strong pharmaceutical brands require simple but robust foundations
For pharmaceutical products, the process of brand-building is intrinsically linked to the complexity of bringing a product to market over many years, through multiple clinical trials and endless regulation. Broadly speaking, there are three steps to building a brand in pharma:
1. A clear commercial strategy
This is about recognising the asset’s value and potential and coordinating extensively across multiple functions – from the clinical development programme and research to pricing, market access, and lifecycle management – to craft a winning commercial strategy.
2. A differentiated brand strategy and distinctive brand identity
Usually taking place during phase III trials, this involves creating the brand by funnelling all the knowledge and learnings from the commercial strategy into a differentiating positioning, brand model and visual identity that serves as a vehicle for the business’ ambitions. Done correctly, the outputs of this foundational stage are long term – largely unchanging throughout the lifecycle of the product.
3. Synergistic medical, marketing, access and sales launch activities
This is about expressing the brand powerfully with the right mix of brand-building creative, advertising, comms and activation. The outputs of this stage tend to evolve in a timely manner or as sales and activation cycles demand.
Pharma does the first of these extremely well: AbbVie’s $200 billion Humira is a best-in-class example. And health brands, in partnership with agencies, are building momentum when it comes to launch comms and sales activation – as recent Cannes wins evidence.
Where the gap is becoming increasingly glaring is the foundational brand building, which starts with brand strategy development and visual identity.
Looking out of category for inspiration
The strong brands we all know and love like BMW, Nike and Dove all have a timeless brand strategy and occupy a rich emotional heartland in their communications. And while they express themselves differently through different media, advertising, comms and activations over time, they’re relentlessly consistent in terms of how they show up and their commitment to an overarching brand purpose and vision. This strategy is what helps build strong emotional connections with audiences over time – and is what results in strong brands.
In contrast, pharma products tend to reduce brand to logo and colour palette. Not only does this mean relying on the same tired, homogenous visual codes and category tropes but it also overburdens the launch ads, comms and activations. These then need to express the entirety of the differentiated commercial strategy and build emotional connections over time. Not a small ask. And because ad campaigns and comms change over time (annually in some cases), this inconsistency weakens a brand’s ability to emotionally connect with customers and consumers.
From a positioning perspective, the focus on short-term sales and the uncertainty that surrounds a product’s potential future indications mean that at launch, a brand’s positioning and value proposition are typically built around the initial approved clinical indication.
But for many molecules, maximising return involves extending the brand across multiple indications. Often these are run by different teams under different management in a matrix structure. What might work from an internal management perspective leads to dispersed and sometimes incoherent brand experiences for customers.
In this case, a strong, indication-agnostic foundational positioning and brand is vital for futureproofing and avoiding expensive brand rescue down the line – something that we see fairly regularly.
How do we bridge the brand gap to maximise differentiation and effectiveness?
For those wanting to lead change in the category, there’s tremendous opportunity to build on and reinforce creative progress with a stronger emphasis on brand. This will result in more strategically coherent and visually dynamic brands that play a role in solving pharma’s differentiation problem while maximising the impact and efficacy of creativity.