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  Products That Rise Above Their Corporate Brands   Products That Rise Above Their Corporate Brands  Edwin Colyer  
Products That Rise Above Their Corporate Brands Although the pharmaceutical industry has had some major brand successes -- think Prozac and Aspirin -- the concept of global branding is only just filtering into most companies’ marketing departments. Big name launches are slowly becoming the norm, from the consumer-style Viagra to the specialist but equally powerful Gleevec.

This is no time for the brains behind this revolution to take a rest, however. They may have integrated strong product branding into everyday practice, but what about the image of the companies themselves? “If you think about the tremendous good that pharma companies do, and compare it against how they are under attack from all sides as users and abusers of their position, then they need some serious reputation management,” says Mike Rea, managing director of IdeaPharma, citing GSK as a case in point. “GSK is more in the news for J P Garnier’s pay package than anything else.”

The truth is that we, as consumers, and the drug firms themselves are probably most interested in the medicines. Thus, you will find that Viagra has more recognition than Pfizer; Claritin is practically a household name, unlike Schering-Plough.

“Historically, product branding has been prominent in the industry due to greater technological differentiation and to the patent system,” says Tara Rehl, relationship marketing manager of brand development at Pfizer. “In the past, when there was less technology parity in the marketplace, it was 'easier' for one company to lead a therapeutic area through the development and launch of a pioneering new medicine -- hence primary focus on the product brand. Additionally, the intellectual property rights granted to a new molecule contribute to the 'product brand on a pedestal' approach to branding in the pharmaceutical industry.”

Jon Parton, director of global branding at AstraZeneca says that support for the corporate brand has not previously found a place in the boardroom. “The quality of a medicine is what matters most, that’s the level of entry in this industry. There have not been many CEOs convinced that there’s a pay back on big corporate brands that aren’t going to be there when they are taken over or merge in a few years’ time.

“In many ways the quality of a product is not related to the company that discovered or invested in it,” Parton continues. “The grottiest, most disreputable company could come up with the next wonder drug because discovery involves chance and luck. The prescribers and patients don’t care who made it, so long as it works. So many chief executives aren’t convinced that there’s a good ROI on branding the company.”

But pharmaceutical product brands don’t stay in the limelight for long. “For the pharmaceutical industry, the patent framework within which the industry functions begs the question: what will be around in 25 or 50 years’ time?” notes Rehl. “The answer is the corporate brand. As the one long term constant, investment in and management of the corporate brand is essential.”

The problem is that corporate branding is a long-term project, in an industry that sees product sales peak and peter out in less than a decade. “To build a corporate brand is time consuming,” says AstraZeneca’s Parton. “There’s what you say, then how consistently you say it and for how long. The problem is you have to be a fantastic company for at least five to 10 years before people believe it -- and you can lose that reputation in 30 seconds.”

Nevertheless, something has persuaded big pharma that it cannot continue like this. “There seems to be a lot more interest than there was,” notes Pfizer’s Rea. “It is now a question of having both -- companies are looking for an umbrella brand to underpin their product brands.”

Jeff Daniels, director of strategic brand communications at Grey Healthcare, suggests that the spate of mergers over the past few years has certainly had a role to play. “The emphasis has never shifted from product branding,” he argues, “but corporate branding is becoming more important as merging partners seek to gain or shed heritage.”

Certainly the formation of AstraZeneca has provided the company with an opportunity to create a new corporate identity. So far the corporate brand has been aimed at investors, employees and prospective employees. Everyone is fighting for investors and the best employees, and corporate brands are part of the ammunition.

Parton couldn’t agree more. “It’s really important in recruitment. If someone is looking for a job in the industry and when they hear of us they say ‘Astra who?’ they’re likely to work elsewhere. And when you join a company it is the brand of the company that matters. Internally, when you’re a big, global company you have to try and help all employees to have share values; you have to show they are all part of the same company with a common view.”

AstraZeneca has guidelines for all its job advertisements to ensure that they consistently communicate the company brand. The company uses headlines that begin “I want...” and only includes photographs that portray the brand values. Internally, the company has also summarized how its corporate brand should translate into the working environment. It stresses a passion for discovery and the empowerment of staff “to explore, challenge, create and improve.”

None of this activity directly sells medicines, Parton admits, but he is adamant that over time it will. “For doctors, the brand will mean trust and that might influence their prescribing decisions. For patients, in our view, in ten years we expect them to be more involved in their prescribing decisions. We are concerned that they know who makes the medicine they get.”

In terms of pushing sales, the corporate brand strategically supports the product brand by opening channels of communication. Respect will make people listen and take note. “The corporate brand does the work of the product brand before launch -- it builds a reputation. That’s why people are doing it,” says Rea. “I think when companies were looking at opportunistic pipelines it mattered less. People are now thinking strategically about their portfolios of compounds.”

Hints of how pharma is using their corporate brands to influence sales directly are found in the US. “The US is a bit different with direct to consumer advertising,” explains Parton. “Patients are much more important stakeholders. They have more involvement in their healthcare -- taking a medicine is very personal, especially if it is life threatening and involves money. People are less likely to buy a product from a company they don’t know. Most patients are not like doctors who can evaluate on technical data. For patients the corporate brand is a short cut.”

“Strong corporate branding is necessary whatever the industry,” Rehl stresses. “In the post Enron and Worldcom era, public and consumer confidence in corporations is low, and there is increased pressure on companies to rebuild trust and to demonstrate responsibility. Corporate branding plays a vital role in achieving this because it clearly defines who you are and how you behave.”

Several of the pharmaceutical companies, including AstraZeneca, have run advertising campaigns to promote the company, not a product. Pfizer has raised its public profile by widespread marketing of its senior citizen’s discount card. Patients already go to their doctors and demand Drug X (as advertised on primetime TV). With many companies offering discount programs, is it feasible that patients may soon ask for products only from Company Y?

Corporate branding works with doctors too, the consultants say. All things being equal, it is more likely that a doctor will see a sales rep from a well-branded company than a poorly branded one. More physician details translate directly into higher product sales.

Of course, strong company brands do have their dangers. A drug withdrawal or clinical trial failure can tar the whole company, and could lead to declining sales in unrelated brands. But Parton says that this is defeatist thinking. “You cannot plan on the basis of expecting failures. Yes, it could happen, but we don’t expect it. After all, it would take only one renegade marketing agency to blow the corporate brand, but that doesn’t stop us.”

In the end, even if it is impossible to measure a direct return on investment, the industry cannot afford to ignore the importance of strong company branding. “What isn’t understood by most companies is that the brand happens anyway, regardless of an emphasis,” warns Grey Healthcare’s Daniels. “If you neglect to manage it, the market will do it for you. If the resulting image is negative, then a company only has itself to blame.”    



Edwin Colyer is a science and technology writer based in Manchester, UK.

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