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Why corporate brand investment is a missed trick in pharma

Pills graphic


Global CEO Thom Newton on why corporate brand is the jewel in the crown for pharma companies seeking long-term competitive advantage.

When it comes to pharma and corporate brand, something doesn’t quite add up.

On the one hand, you’ve got a global pharma industry estimated to be worth $1.5 trillion in 2023. On the other, you have the 2022 Forbes 100 most valuable brands list – with not one pharma brand in sight.

It’s something of a conspicuous absence. This is a sector experiencing rapid growth and a ‘wave of innovations’ according to McKinsey – a sector whose future is being shaped by AI-driven drug discovery and innovative digital therapeutics.

But despite this – and despite the inclusion of companies like AstraZeneca and GSK in the FTSE-100 index – not one pharma brand appears on the Forbes list, where a whole host of lesser-known names, like CVS, Frito-Lay and AT&T, are featured.

Pharma’s omission isn’t a huge surprise: this is a sector where corporate brand has traditionally been subservient to product brand. Products are what treat, prevent or diagnose a disease and are what ultimately generate revenue, but pharma companies tend to keep them at arm’s length to protect parent brands, whose hard-won reputations they’re keen to defend.

“This is a sector whose future is being shaped by AI-driven drug discovery and innovative digital therapeutics.”

The emphasis on product brand also makes sense when you consider the fact that pharma companies tend to adopt short-term, sales-focused thinking when it comes to products – in part necessarily, and due to limited exclusivity windows in which to turn a profit. There are also low expectations around brand ROI, because primary interactions with healthcare professionals (HCPs) have historically been face-to-face and sales led.

A shifting healthcare landscape
But times are changing: the pandemic has highlighted society’s reliance on scientific innovation like never before, and we (in Europe, at least) have started to take a real interest in the companies manufacturing the vaccines we’ve become so reliant on. It’s not an overstatement to say that this period has forced us to rethink our relationship with healthcare providers and put pharma at the forefront of public consciousness.

But beyond the pandemic, other wide-reaching changes have been taking place across healthcare ecosystems. Telemedicine, healthcare at home, the need for pharma companies to go ‘beyond the pill’, and the rise of the ‘empowered patient’ mean the points at which healthcare brands touch customers and patients have multiplied.

Within the industry, you’ve then got a constant drumbeat of M&A activity driving an ongoing need for the harmonisation and integration of product brands and people – a problem made harder when a parent brand’s purpose isn’t well articulated. These factors, accelerated and compounded by the pandemic, are driving an opportunity – or imperative – to put the emphasis in pharma back on corporate brand.

In addition, there’s ever-growing interest in the companies behind the medicines:

  • The empowered patient wants to know the companies providing their medicines and services, and to be supported by them throughout their journey.
  • The talent pool, which now comprises the tech specialists so desperately needed for digital transformation, are weighing up which pharma brand to work for – or, conversely, whether pharma is even the right sector for them.
  • Investors want to see how the company in question is creating value – and are observing how patients are engaging with the brand and looking at whether it’s managing to attract brighter talent.

“The empowered patient wants to know the companies providing their medicines and services.”

Where corporate brand can deliver big wins
In these times of flux, the corporate brand becomes more important than ever – to patients, carers, HCPs, talent, employees and investors. It should also be recognised as a key business asset – a powerful lever to support businesses in realising their objectives and gaining competitive advantage. A strong corporate brand:

1. Creates a strong company narrative
A brand anchored in a clearly articulated purpose – the North Star to which your internal organisation turns – has become more important than ever; its meaningful expression connects the brand to its employees, helps attract and retain talent, and creates resonance with stakeholders.

2. Builds trust
In a pharma brand’s relationship with prescribers, HCPs, patients and the wider public, trust is paramount. A strong corporate brand can be used to build that trust. It’s the single entity connecting audiences at every stage of their journeys; it ensures they feel seen, heard and understood. And building trust is what leads to growing confidence, in turn, promoting loyalty and turning patients and carers into committed brand advocates. It could and should play a crucial role when it comes to clinical trial recruitment, too.

3. Drives differentiation and promotes expansion
Beyond trust, corporate brand is crucial for differentiating a pharma brand from its competitors in a space where homogenous branding and messaging is prevalent. Long-term business value can also be added through increased agility – a strong corporate brand supports market expansion and boosts a new product’s chances of success, by providing a crucial foundation of trust and recognition.

In this new healthcare environment, the shrewdest pharma companies will be those that create and utilise the value of corporate brand – and treat it as a business asset that will make the difference between good and great. The right kind of strategic investment will help reframe pharma companies as more than just medicine providers – and recast them as brands that people love, trust and ultimately advocate for.

Thom Newton

Global CEO - LDN

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