The Brand Promotion Gauntlet
When dealing with the pharmaceutical marketplace, why is keeping things simple so complex?
Al Topin, President
It began with a simple marketing idea. It was the perfect opportunity. The customer (the specialist physician) had an unmet need and the product (after years of development and testing) solved it. What could be simpler? This was going to be a terrific product to market. No competition on the horizon. The product would grow into a successful, market-leading, profitable brand. Nothing could go wrong.
Or so they thought.
Little did they know that the enemies of simple were lurking around every corner, ready and waiting to leap out and add a barrier here, a turn of phrase there, and an extra bit of explanation everywhere.
So a perfectly simple, easy-to-communicate idea, for a product that clearly granted an important unmet need, became buried under a clutter of complexity, from regulatory requirements, to corporate policies, to “helpful” additions from management—the residue of dozens of compromises.
The result? A so-so launch, a perplexed sales force (“There’s got to be a benefit buried in here somewhere”), a confused prescriber, and a mediocre sales performance. What followed was predictable: Product messages were changed, the sales force retrained, the brand team switched, and finally the budget reduced and the brand marginalized.
How could this have happened to such a promising opportunity? To a clear winner? Unfortunately, it happens quite frequently. Keeping things simple can be a very complex business. Especially in the pharmaceutical marketplace.
Simple is an overperformer
Simplicity, in everything from marketing plans to creative campaigns, is always going to help you perform better than complexity. Here are some benefits of simple:
Simple delivers clarity. A product story needs to be explained quickly and easily because prescribers don’t have the time to dig for data and decode the benefits. One staggeringly clear, instantly understandable claim always has the edge over 10 data points in terms of making it easy to see why your brand is better than the other guy’s.
Simple is easier to sell. We all know that sales reps can find 40 seconds (if they are lucky) to talk with their physician customers. A clear message, a quick story, and the sales call is over. Clutter those precious moments with too much information and the opportunity is wasted.
Simple leads to relevance. We need to make our point quickly for the audience. If we force our audience to plow through a ton of data, analytics, comparisons, and context before we reach the key insights, the relevance will be buried. Marketers can easily overthink and overexplain the data.
Simple enables big ideas. The simpler, shorter, and clearer the message is, the larger, more open, and more exciting the creative exploration can be. Creative teams love simple ideas because they allow them to focus. And in today’s environment, simplicity is a must in order for ideas to be able to adapt to multiple channels.
Simple is memorable. The human brain can remember only three or four points with any consistency. While data may bring the point home, clarity keeps the message upfront.
Simple delivers “Ah ha” moments. We all know those moments of truth when the physician’s eyes light up, her head turns, and she actually looks at you for a moment. You have just connected the dots for your customer. An unmet need has just found its answer. We call that the “point of impact.”
Enemies of Simple are Everywhere
In today’s risk-averse environment, the enemies of simple are not only everywhere, but are actually paid and incentivized to add complexity to your brand. It’s like the Western gunfighter standing alone in the middle of the street knowing that his enemies are hiding everywhere—on the roof, around the corner, behind the water trough. Even the horse waiting patiently, pawing the ground, shouldn’t be trusted.
So who are the enemies, you ask? Corporations, for starters, which by their nature are risk averse. They want to protect their shareholders and customers. So the job of in-house medical counsel, regulatory reviewers, and attorneys is to make sure that all possible risk is minimized—which often leads to overexplaining, overjustifying, and overcomplicating information. We know we don’t have to say much about the roles the FDA and its Division of Drug Marketing, Advertising, and Communications (DDMAC) play. It’s obvious—they get to make their own rules. But between the need for fair balance, black box restrictions, and Risk Evaluation and Mitigation strategies (REMS) programs, we often end up with communication that’s not only complicated, but a little lopsided as well.
Then there are the members of the commercialization team, which we could call “frenemies.” They are all on the same team, but each with their own territory to protect. Each can add a bit of information or depth, making sure that all possible issues are covered. A series of, “Oh, just one more thing,” turns simple into forgettable. With good intent, the various departments want to be sure that all possible product attributes are listed and all details available so that every customer need, benefit, and want that the product can fulfill is made obvious. Compromise happens and complexity ensues. So team members they may be, but friends of simple they are not.
What’s a Leader to Do?
Alone in the middle of the street, the gunfighter doesn’t have to be the fastest draw. If there’s a good plan in place, he needs to stick to it, which takes discipline, foresight, and logic. Sounds pretty basic, doesn’t it? And it sounds like a pretty weak defense against the forces of complexity.
The fact is the enemies are hiding in plain view. From the start they wear signs that say, “Danger: Simplicity Alert,” so you have the opportunity to plan for them just like you plan for competition and market changes.
Will you be able to avoid them all? Of course not—we do business in a regulated marketplace. But there are some things you can do.
Make simplicity a goal of your strategic planning process. As issues are analyzed and priorities reviewed, simplicity, clarity, and focus must be a primary consideration. Too often timetables and budgets drive decision-making, sacrificing critical strategies that help keep the processes and the communication simple—or at least simpler.
Once your strategic plan is in place, keep it front-and-center. It helps your team focus on what you’re trying to accomplish rather than getting distracted with issues as they come up (which they always do). Sticking with the plan and staying focused on its priorities make that document one of the primary defenses against the enemies of simplicity.
And keep simplicity at the forefront when you work with your agency. They’re charged with bringing your brand message to the market, so do everything you can to keep it simple. The creative brief—or creative contract, as some call it—is the key. It outlines the key issues, focuses the message, and clarifies the creative tasks. Written well, it keeps simplicity on the table and allows your team to evaluate the messaging and creative with clarity, focus, and simplicity as first priorities.
The Final Ingredient
You may know where the enemy is hiding, you may have your defenses ready, and you may have the forces of discipline, foresight, and logic on your side. But like our lonely gunfighter, you’re not going to prevail against complexity without an extra helping of courage—deep-down corporate courage. The kind that helps you stand up to senior management when you ask for more time or more budget. Or to defend your claims in medical/regulatory reviews. Or to stand up to your own team members, often in many distant global locations, and reject the compromises they have suggested. But in the long run it’s that courage that makes the difference between a simple success and a simple failure.