Take the Brand Out of the “Branded vs. Unbranded” Conversation

Traditionally, unbranded communication has been used in advance of product approval to help support condition awareness, lead generation and market preparation (e.g., to raise awareness of symptoms, introduce a new MOA, set the stage for a new indication, etc.). Only in the rare case of a monopoly, such as Zostavax for shingles, or a significant market leader like Lipitor or Nexium during their peak sales periods, is unbranded advertising considered for use post brand approval—the argument being, “Why drive Rxs for my competitors’ brands when I can be driving brand awareness and Rxs only for ‘my’ brand?”

Unfortunately, this traditional way of thinking misses several key opportunities to engage patients and healthcare professionals (HCPs). It places the Rx product or device brand at the center of the communication strategy. That may be a natural habit for brand marketers, but it’s a response that assumes doctors and patients are paying attention to the brands and are prepared to engage with them in a linear fashion.

As pharmaceutical marketers, we can’t lose sight of the fact that nobody wants to take our products. They only do so because they feel they have to. In fact, most patients perceive them to be a “necessary evil,” which is why our industry struggles with such poor patient adherence. Thus, to engage patients and HCPs we must focus on the customer journey, not the brand journey. The brand lifecycle obviously impacts what we can communicate, but just because a brand has launched doesn’t mean that now everyone knows about the brand, or even cares about it.

Meet People Where They Are

The goal is to use both unbranded and branded communications to talk to people throughout the journey, no matter where they are. Before marketers can accurately plan the mix of branded and unbranded communications, they first need to understand where their target audience is—what they’re feeling and thinking, what they need and what will fulfill their unmet needs.

People are at different points in the journey at different times. A patient who’s concerned about a symptom, but unaware of a related condition, is in a very different place from a patient who’s been on therapy for months, or even years. The same is true for HCPs who are learning about a treatment or indication for the first time, versus those who are active prescribers. Each audience needs a different kind of support.

As marketers, we need to look at different types of communication, different channels, and different messaging—branded and unbranded—and combine them to bring the patient and physician together. We can’t let a “product-centric” view get in the way of that. When we think about the customer journey, and where branded and unbranded communications best fit, it helps to think of unbranded as “up-funnel” in the awareness and acquisition phase—where a patient or HCP may not know the brand.

Regardless of how long the product has been in market, branded communication is typically more effective when the audience is at a later stage in the journey. Unfortunately, marketers sometimes get tripped up because they assume that when the brand gets FDA approval and branded communication kicks in, it’s time to turn off unbranded communications.

Take A Non-Linear Approach

Combining the power of branded and unbranded requires a customer-centric approach, which demands a non-linear map of the customer journey. There are times when each audience is more receptive to one style of communication or another, at different points in their experience, and we can’t assume the flow is sequential. The takeaway for marketers is that communicating effectively revolves around moments, conversations and points of engagement. The customer journey can flow both ways—from branded to unbranded, and unbranded to branded. It’s not an either/or equation.

But, since different audiences have different needs, marketers can no longer afford to “push’” branded messages at their audiences. We need to make it easy for different audiences to find the components they need—the support piece, lifestyle content or educational resource. Our audiences will pull out specific elements of the brand that they need when they need them, in the way that works best for them. In essence, marketers need to empower people to choose where they are and what they need to satisfy those unmet needs.

Audiences will choose the moments they’re in, and it’s up to us, as marketers, to make it permeable and deliver the kind of experience that builds trust—simpler and easier for the patient or doctor to take away what they want, that one thing they’re going to do.

Build Trust

In today’s world of open information, we also can’t lose sight of the fact that we no longer “own” the brands—our customers do. We can make suggestions. We can influence. But the stakeholders in the ecosystem own it. We’re just participants.

As a result, branded and unbranded communications can no longer just be “informational,” they need to be “relevant.” The message, tone and offer must be relevant and engaging first and foremost. Marketers must deliver the kind of experience that builds trust to create a relationship. Hitting somebody over the head with a heavily branded message and call to action when they’re first exploring a condition is probably too much, too soon.

Brands often have the negative big pharma “reputation” attached to them, and this may interrupt the trust with regard to ongoing relationships. While customers may engage with a branded website to learn about risks vs. benefits and make an informed decision about the drug they plan to take (or have just started taking), the lack of trust prevents them from going to the branded site for ongoing outreach. Additionally, brands are limited in what they can communicate from a regulatory standpoint—and this gets in the way of the ability to have an open two-way relationship.

Tap Into Experiential Connection Points

By understanding the customer’s frame of mind accurately, marketers can create those key points of interaction in a branded or unbranded context, and customers can then tap into those experiences when and how it’s right for them. Take Facebook, for example—not as a marketing tactic, but as a communication platform. It’s the experiences that people have on Facebook that drive repeat visits. And Facebook learns constantly from how people engage. They see what experiences people or brands create and what their users enjoy and share. Then Facebook adapts their platform to enable more of the same. Creating a portfolio of experiences is something that prompts those experiential connection points over time. The users are in control.

Sidebar: Example of Experiential Marketing


A truly exceptional example of developing an “experiential connection” is the Procter & Gamble “Thank You, Mom” campaign created around the 2012 Olympic Games in London. P&G didn’t focus on selling more paper towels or detergent. Instead, they made the entire effort about helping moms make their child’s life the best it could be. They leveraged unbranded communications to feature moms at key moments in the Games; partnerships to drive awareness of key initiatives in the program such as clean-up events in London; sponsorships of athletes to connect their brands to consumers; and direct response to create one-to-one relationships with moms.

It was a tremendous campaign that brought global attention to P&G’s product portfolio, and how their products support moms and their lifestyle. And it paid off in a big way. Branded and unbranded communications worked together to create a truly immersive experience across a broad array of communications. It was so successful, they rolled it out again for the Sochi Olympics.

  • Jay Bolling

    Jay Bolling is Executive Chairman at PulseCX. Jay is passionate about developing customer experiences (CX) that influence the decision-making process and leverage “key impact moments” (when customers are most receptive to specific communications) to measurably increase the impact of brand messaging.


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