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Is branding relevant in today’s pharma market?

A look at the meaning and scope of brands as experiences for HCPs and patients in a complex and highly specialised scientific environment


8 July 2021

By: Mike Young

Times have changed

Back in the days when blockbuster GP brands such as Zantac and Prozac were the thing, learning from consumer branding techniques was very much in vogue – but what about the environment we operate in now?

More often than not the major breakthroughs are in secondary care and are frequently highly specialised. The holy grail is personalised medicine and even if we are not there yet it is certainly the direction of travel. Patient populations are shrinking for any given drug and as a consequence so too are the number of specialist physicians that treat them. In the case of rare diseases there may be only a handful of such specialists in any one country.

In such an environment it is perfectly reasonable for someone to point out that they know all their main customers personally and query the need for branding. To back up their point they may add that their customers know all the clinical trials and in many cases were involved in them. However, despite this apparent slam dunk every pharma company involved has objectives to achieve and must still communicate with its customers to realise them. They have questions to answer, problems to solve, stories to tell and services to offer. With that in mind it depends on how you perceive branding. If you perceive it in terms of the glossy approach taken in consumer branding you certainly have a point, but maybe there is a different way of looking at things.

Branding related to products and companies

In view of the fact that people can still think of branding as being about a visual or logo perhaps it’s best to start with a definition. A useful way of defining a brand is that it is what people think and feel about a named thing. Often this is a product or a service offering but it can also be a company or even a disease. Put another way a brand can be seen as a customer experience. Thinking like this immediately leads to setting objectives.

If you want to build a product brand and create a great customer experience you must ask what your customers, including patients, need to think and feel for the brand to be successful. Having decided that you need to determine what you need to do to get them to think and feel this way. Even in today’s highly specialised markets these questions remain relevant although if you are going to design the right clinical trials to convince the expert clinicians that are your primary customers you will need to start answering them sooner rather than later.

All this takes place in a context one part of which is the competition. If there is a competitor you need to demonstrate better value. You need to create a better experience for customers. If there isn’t you may still have to plan for the arrival of one so it can be more complex than it looks at first sight.

Another factor is your company brand. Ideally, it should add value by being an endorser of your product brand. However, such things are not always straightforward. On the one hand close-knit rare disease communities are likely to be suspicious of manipulation from big pharma, meaning these companies need to be careful in how they present themselves. On the other hand unknown biotech companies, who increasingly market their own products, need to develop their source credibility by creating a brand people can trust. Again, this is all about how customers experience the company.

Branding related to diseases and patients

In the case of rare diseases only the expert physicians may have heard of them, let alone had personal experience of them. This can have serious consequences for patients with many having to wait years before they are referred to someone who can make the correct diagnosis. Companies marketing drugs for such diseases must therefore reach out way beyond potential prescribers to make both primary and secondary care doctors aware of the disease and its ramifications as well as the availability of a new possibility for treatment. We could say that they need to create a brand for the disease as well as the product.

Possible patients have to be found, recognised and referred far more quickly than is the case now. Even then, patients’ attitudes to the disease may delay initiation of treatment. Rather than welcome the prospect of treatment patients may be resistant because they don’t want to admit to themselves that they have the disease. If patients are to start and adhere to the treatment they may have to revise their perceptions about the disease, the medicine and their likely experience with both. This means that marketers need to consider their brands at the patient level and beyond which means including carers and families.

Branding related to bringing science to life

No matter the audience branding involves telling a meaningful and motivating story that communicates and resonates with the experience they will have. In the case of difficult diseases with complex treatments bringing science to life is essential. This requires a thorough understanding of both the science and the audiences to whom the story will be told. In the broader context it requires the ability to successfully bring different kinds of brand to life for different kinds of people; no simple task but one that is vital if branding is to stay relevant in today’s pharma market.

For more information, inquire about ‘Brand-To-Life’ by contacting

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