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Who owns the brand?

Published on 27/01/09 at 01:20pm

For all of us in brand marketing, it is worth remembering that creating and nurturing a brand can be like bringing up a surrogate child.

You strive to protect and care for it, you invest time, money and talent to make it strong, resilient and distinctive, yet it never entirely belongs to you. It exists outside our offices and factories, and it thrives in the minds and aspirations of our customers.

So who does the brand really belong to? The answer that most people would give would appear to be obvious - the company owns the rights to it. And to some extent they would be right. Apple owns the iPod brand, Volkswagen owns the Golf and closer to home, GSK owns the Seretide brand. So yes, the brand is officially owned by its parent company.

But behind this simplicity lies an increasing complexity and challenge for brand marketers in every field, none more so than in the pharmaceutical industry. So in answer to the original question - it depends. In fact it depends on two fundamentals:

1.That the brand marketer charged with the custodianship of the brand owns the brand, its communication, and stays loyal to the vision of the brand while ensuring that it is relevant in meeting target customer needs, current and future.

2.That the desired customers own the brand by seeing it as right for them. Remember the old adage products expand customer choice; brands simplify it? Of course this is true; make more products available and the customers have more to choose from. But if the customers truly identify with, believe in and support one brand, then only that brand will be right for them.

The company owns the brand

Marketing consultants spend time inspiring brand marketers to develop sustainable, motivating, meaningful, credible and differentiated brands. But very often - at least in the early stages of the process - it becomes apparent that the product management team almost defers the brand management to their appointed advertising agency.

This cannot be right. Although the advertising agency is critical in terms of communicating the brand to customers, the actual shaping of the brand, the belief in its strategic components, and its custodianship must be the responsibility of the brand manager.

It is easy to see how it happens though; most product managers are increasingly spending valuable time attending endless meetings. Activity is focused on providing materials for the sales teams. This results in significantly less quality time being spent nurturing the brands in their care.

A recent conversation with a senior pharma marketer in an affiliate of a global company illustrates this clearly: "I spend every day attending internal meetings that have little to do with the development of my brands, either in achieving today's business objectives or planning for the future. What worries me is how little time we actually spend generating real wealth when compared to the reactive nature of my job - responding to requests from the sales teams and, increasingly, from customers direct, as well as the internal documentation and hundreds of e-mails.

"When I consider how much time I actually spend thinking about the critical issues facing my brand, I can only say that the answer is very little. When I think of how much we concern ourselves with our product as a brand, how it is developing, what the overall vision is, how my brand meets customer needs now and in the future, and how we communicate, I am truly horrified."

All this adds up to a significant challenge: we are in danger of neglecting our brands - the most valuable asset most companies have. We believe the brand must stand the test of time - for this to happen it is critical that the brand has roots and a clear direction, with a set of values and a persona it adheres to - irrespective of brand manager - as well as a brand positioning and essence built upon as the market, customer understanding and needs evolve.

We believe branding now requires a deeper process. Pharma needs to break down its customers into segments, and position its products accordingly, but to achieve this the industry needs to undertake a major overhaul of its practices. It takes time to cultivate the intangibles necessary to a brands longevity, and keeping a brand relevant means finding authentic sources of influence sooner than the influencers.

A brand is what it always has been: the customers perception. It's the underlying reason a well-executed brand becomes an appendage of a customer. A great print campaign, a logo, a tagline, professional relations, or even a well-orchestrated special event, does not define a brand.

What about the many of us who work at an affiliate level where the brand is dictated at a corporate or global level? Aren't the brand and its destiny outside our remit?

Actually, no. To think that the brand is someone elses responsibility and to bury our heads in the sand is not acceptable - we need to find out what the global vision is for our brand, understand it (challenge it if necessary), live it and use this within the legal, cultural and regulatory environment.

Use this guidance to make the brand relevant for the customers in your markets, communicating the benefits and  positions the brand the way we and our global colleagues intend. Doing this can deliver the brands full potential.

As a brand manager, you are only a custodian, so why change everything? Although you are charged with continuing to make the brand relevant to your customer segment and want to give the sales teams something new to talk about (plus make your own mark), it is completely unnecessary to change everything. If the brand vision, values, persona, and positioning are still meaningful and credible, then we should never neglect the last fundamental of brand management - that the proposition should be sustainable.

We need to understand the imperative to not just tick the box of continually originating new materials, but actually create real understanding of how the brand meets customers needs emotionally and functionally, now and in the future.

Look at how GSK have managed the Seretide campaign: a clear vision of stopping people feeling like an asthmatic, translated into three campaigns over a number of years (and no doubt a few product managers) that contributed to building one of the strongest brands in pharma, with that vital and appropriate balance of functional and emotional benefits in the customers minds.

However, remember Stephen King's famous statement about brands: A product is something that is made in a factory; a brand is something that is bought by a customer.

In today's marketplaces, people - and especially our customers (the prescribing doctor and the payers) - know far more about the brands and the companies that own them than ever before. Consequently, many now believe that the ownership of brands has actually moved to those that choose them  their customers.

The customer owns the brand

There are many examples in the consumer environment that demonstrate this: the new Coke debacle showed clearly that the Coca Cola Company did not have the right to change the formulation of its iconic beverage; Harley Davidson owners are critical to the company, not just as customers but as the inspiration behind the core of the brand; and the annual gatherings of the Apple faithful clearly show who actually holds the reins to the brand. Or do they?

If the real value of the brand lies in the minds and imaginations of those who choose to buy it, don't they own it? If it were to disappear from their minds it would immediately cease to have any value at all.

Maybe this is part of the central issue that we all need to address - we do not genuinely develop brands with true value in pharmaceuticals since, unlike in consumer markets, the moment a generic becomes available, most pharmaceutical brands do disappear, simply because the brand does not have any value at all. So can we change this?

Parent companies do own their brands, but so do the people who choose them. The model that seems to fit pharmaceutical brands today, as in most markets, is more like a joint venture or partnership. This has very significant implications as, like any successful joint venture, it has to have certain critical factors to ensure its continued success.

The most successful brands will be those that create a joint venture between the brand and its customer base. This is the core of the elusive partnership that so many pharma companies talk about today but struggle to make real.

Successful brands need a sense of ownership by their core audience, underpinned by the key factors that drive any successful joint venture. These are mutual interest and respect, a truly symbiotic relationship, continually refreshing the relationship, and sharing the success of the partnership. Each one of these five key factors has important implications, both in terms of strategy and practical ground-level activities.

In conclusion

The company owns the brand and it is the responsibility of every brand manager to ensure that it is fit for purpose - clearly positioned with concise, differentiated, motivating, credible, meaningful and sustainable messages that communicate the vision, values and essence of the brand. This should be based upon real insight and understanding of the customers and their needs, both functional and emotional, enabling the customers to see the value added.

But in defining a brand as something the customers have a relationship with, and use because they want to, we must remember that the customers also own the brand and therefore work to sustain this vital relationship such that customers believe in it and the value it adds to them.

As a consequence, successful brands and their owners enter into a joint venture of mutual interest and reward with their customers. After all, it takes two hands for a handshake, but just one to wave goodbye.

Box:Key factors in successful brand partnership

Mutual interest

This is the cornerstone of a successful partnership. Customers are the only source of information on brand performance. They act as radars to warn of impending attitudinal change that could cause tectonic shifts in categories. Companies that own brands but fail to listen to their customers, and thereby fail to understand their goals and aspirations, hopes and challenges, are in danger of ignoring mutual interest and thus losing their customers.

When developing our messages, we must challenge ourselves - have we really understood what our customers want to achieve in a particular disease and management situation, and have we aligned our messages to reflect this in a way that resonates with the customers beyond what we want to say to what they want to hear?

Mutual respect

This is critical in any marketplace, particularly pharma, that is characterised by many aggressively competing brands and a multitude of brand promises.

Customers have many ways of according brands respect. When they recommend a brand, they do so because they believe in it, but may gain nothing for themselves. They are often willing to put their own credibility to the test by staying with a brand even though its competitors entice them. Mutual respect drives loyalty and encourages consumer advocacy.

This requires us to look beyond the claims and messages of efficacy, safety and tolerability towards adding real value to all customers.

Symbiotic relationship

Many brand custodians fail to recognise that they need their customers just as much as their customers need them. The relationship is truly symbiotic. And brands with the highest attitudinal loyalty, those that are actually preferred over their competition, are those where customers feel that they contribute as much to the brands life as the brand does to theirs.

This implies a partnership where each values the role and contribution of the other. Suggestions accepted and acknowledged, problems sorted out, promises delivered with no commercial motive, are all rewarded with greater customer participation, involvement and actual preference backed by goodwill. People need responsive, responsible and trustworthy brands just as much as those brands need customers.

Do we really have the insights into what the relationship should be? Do we recognise and empower customer inputs beyond the ad board? What plans have we put in place to encourage and act upon customer feedback and experiences with our drugs and the tangible services that are needed to add value?

Continually refreshing the relationship

Having acquired a customer, some brand owners seem to forget that he or she exists. Many brands seem to treat their current customers in terms of mining lifetime value from them rather than increasing their delight levels.

In fact, instead of refreshing the relationship, many brands prefer to take it for granted. In all our communications, pharma companies should continually ask not just whats in it for the customer? but what can we do together with our customers? - this demonstrates that we truly want to retain customers.

Sharing success

This is the hardest to come by, but is a very powerful area of opportunity and one that few use at the moment. To share the profits of success with a partner who is critical to your business seems obvious, so why do so many brands ignore it when it comes to their most critical partner of all  their customer?


Chris Marks is client services director at The MSI Consultancy and can be contacted via e-mail at

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