May I have a Kleenex? Did you Google your daughter’s new boyfriend? Are you on Lipitor? We’re all aware of brand names that have become modern vernacular for a general category of product. It’s a boon for the brand, of course, and a bane for all those other companies whose products do, more or less, the same thing. I thought about this recently with regard to the aforementioned Lipitor, manufactured by Pfizer. For those of you who don’t take this cholesterol-battling drug, it’s about to go off patent. This means that Lipitor, the biggest-selling drug of all time (what are we eating, people?!) will face generic competition, to the point that it may lose its status as a lucky brand whose name is used as a catch-all word for its fundamental function. This could mean a huge blow to Pfizer which stands to lose billions (yes, it’s a “b” ) of dollars a year in revenue.
THE COMMODITY CHALLENGE
As a person who makes his living helping one brand differentiate itself from another (as well as a taker of Lipitor), I’m interested in Pfizer’s challenge. Beyond this, I had the privilege of working with Pfizer many years ago when it began its Lipitor brand-building endeavor. Suffice it to say, it’s one thing to help build a brand protected by a patent, with all the inherent proprietary claims on which one can base a brand promise. It’s quite another to build, or rebuild, a brand when it’s a commodity. It’s one of the biggest issues we, in the branding world, face every day. Given that Pfizer s star-performer Lipitor is about to become just one of many consumer choices, some much less costly, I thought I might offer up a few of the lessons I’ve learned along the way working with brands like Crest, Pampers, and Tide, products that live side by side with myriad similar products, including generics. The million- or billion-dollar question being, how does a brand stand out in the maddening crowd of competitors when its intrinsic features and benefits are pretty much the same?
PUMP UP THE VOLUME
The first piece of advice I’d give Pfizer, and any other company with a brand moving into a commodity position, is to pump up the volume with your most loyal customers. As product options trend upward, and the Internet runs amok with news and alternate views of the choices consumers have, paying extra attention to those who’ve placed their trust in you should be your first line of defense. To this end, make sure you fully understand both who you’re talking to and why they re buying what you’re selling. This is no time to sit back. Take a proactive approach to everything that has an impact on the customer’s experience with your brand—which, of course, would be everything. In Lipitor’s case, Pfizer has already introduced a loyalty program, Lipitor for You, through which eligible patients can get a $4 co-pay card. This is definitely a nice piece of the overall solution, as is Pfizer’s plan to partner with a specialty pharmacy to sell its blockbuster drug at generic prices to people who order directly from this pharmacy. These initiatives are a good start for the short term, but won’t assure long-term allegiance. The best (only?) way to keep customers faithful is to give them the best total brand experience. Everything associated with the brand must be pitch perfect, which is a perfect segue to my second piece of advice: your brand story.
It’s the holy grail of marketing to be unique (which Lipitor was, for a while, anyway). But generally this is the exception, not the rule. Smart marketers know that if you don’t have a better mousetrap, you have to find something to say about your mousetrap which helps consumers see it from a new perspective. The most powerful brands identify something that is different about what they re offering, but different in a way that s relevant to the folks they want to reach. To be successful, the notion must be simple to understand and the execution spot-on. Think about Wheaties and you can’t help but think “Breakfast of Champions,” for instance. See a FedEx truck and instinctively you know that something absolutely, positively had to get somewhere overnight. Watch athletes on the field of play, be they professionals or amateurs, and you know it’s Gatorade that will help them replenish themselves during a sweaty game.
Beyond being simple and focused, the ideas on which great brands are built are also memorable, or sticky. Your goal is to make an impression which drives preference. However, it goes without saying (although I will) that if you don’t ultimately deliver on your story—that is, perform as promised, the impression you hope to make won’t be a good one.
OPEN A CHANNEL
Which brings me to yet another important aspect of marketing in our ultra-competitive and transparent marketplace: After you’ve given them something to talk about, give them a way to talk about it. These days, marketers cannot underestimate the power of social media. Word-of-mouth is one of the most effective tools a marketer has. It’s no secret that consumers simply trust other consumers more than any source when it comes to making brand choices. Companies that proactively take advantage of social media sites to tell their brand stories—and, better yet, to get their brand advocates to tell their stories for them—are well ahead of the competitive curve. The trick here is three-fold. First, you must have that great story to tell (see above). Second, you must have a platform from which to tell it. This can be anything and everything from Facebook or a company review site, to a Twitter account, to a blog or category portal. As long as you have the means to prompt a dialogue and keep it going, you’re in a good position. And finally, you must understand how to get and engage your brand advocates. And, this brings me full circle.
When your brand is just one of many, you’ve got to get out and stay plugged in to what the people you want to reach and serve are saying about your brand. This means taking advantage of all the online sites and forums your customers visit and use to share opinions. Find out what turns them on, or off, about your product, or any of the others in your category. Whether it’s via Twitter, Facebook, Google or any other source, listening to and making constructive use of brand advocates is a smart way to recruit and retain customers.
Lipitor has had a really terrific run. On-patent, it was in the catbird seat. Given that it’s about to become just one of many products in its category, Pfizer will have a bit more work to do to keep the Lipitor brand top of mind, with physicians and patients. To do so, it should follow the lead of other companies (which includes most out there) whose brands are competing for share of shelf and share of mind: Understand who your most loyal customers are and learn from them; make sure your brand stands for something different that people care about; deliver a core brand experience that meets, if not exceeds, customer expectations. At the end of the day, a brand’s value is reflected in how its customers feel, and in Lipitor’s case, what it does to keep them healthy.