Which brand do you most admire? When asked this question, people generally respond with the likes of Apple, Nike, Starbucks, BMW, or Southwest. What is it about these brands that continually inspires such devotion?
Each of these brands stands for something bigger than the products their company makes. And you feel this force in every interaction with that brand, regardless of channel.
Think different. Apple is not just computers and portable music devices, but a revolutionary force that idolizes design, beauty, and simplicity of user experience above all else.
Just do it. Nike is not just shoes and equipment, but the facilitator of athletic empowerment and embodiment of this ethos.
Traditionally, a brand is defined as what your product stands for; the aggregate of how consumers experience a product and what they think, say, do, and feel based on that experience. A brand is as a promise made and kept; “kept” being a critical piece of the equation, more important now than ever before. Because in today’s uber-connected world, customers can discuss and define your brand themselves through social media. And to some extent, perception is reality. Your brand is what your customers say it is.
A deep commitment to consistently defining, being, and acting as one brand is what separates Apple and Nike from the rest of the world. But inside the world of pharma, marketers have strayed from this core idea of brand = promise. In pharma, the word “brand” has become synonymous with “product.” A “branded” asset is one in which a product name is mentioned (and with it, claims, fair balance, and ISI). “Brand” is used interchangeably with “product,” and this tendency necessarily narrows the definition of “brand.” As a result, a new construct has emerged: brand promise = product promise = product performance.
This narrow definition of “brand” leaves much to be desired compared to the richness of the definition in other categories. Limiting the brand promise to product benefits not only limits the possibilities for partnership, creativity, and ultimately relevance, but also leaves a threat unchecked: when the generic version of that product comes to market, that generic can easily erode market share. If a brand is defined only by product benefit, and a generic offers the same product benefit at a fraction of the cost, the competitive advantage is lost. The only way to mitigate this risk is to expand the meaning of brand.
A few brand stewards in pharma have seen the light and established brand promises that are bigger than product benefits. Their products have gone on to maintain relevance (and market share) even in the face of competitive threats and generic entry. Like Cymbalta. Cymbalta isn’t just about treating depression. Had the product tried to enter a crowded market focusing only on promoting a slightly different mechanism of action, its impact would have been minimal. Instead, Cymbalta decided to stand for taking depression out of the murky, stigmatized mental health category, and providing patients a way to communicate with their physicians through concrete physical symptoms. “Depression hurts, Cymbalta can help.”
But why does most of pharma continue to miss this opportunity? One reason is the reality of operating in a highly regulated industry. But the bigger barrier is our tendency to follow the traditional, comfortable pharma marketing playbook.
What if we started by changing our definition of “brand?” Let’s separate “brand” from “product.” They should not be synonymous, and they aren’t anywhere outside of pharma (this would be tantamount to saying Coca-Cola = soft drinks or Starbucks = coffee). Think about not just what a product does (functional benefits) but of what it enables consumers to do. What is its purpose? What does it promise? What characterizes the brand experience? How do we hope our customers will describe it to others?
Marketing – inside and outside pharma – should be about establishing our brand’s perspective in the marketplace, inviting people to join that perspective, and meeting the needs of that perspective – not only with our products, but through every touchpoint and experience with the brand. That’s what BMW does. It's what Apple does. And it's what enlightened pharma could do, if we just think different.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of her employer, Digitas Health, or Publicis Groupe. Any examples included are purely illustrative and not indicative of past or current client relationships.