Branded vs. unbranded: Planning your marketing strategy

With the copious regulatory restrictions in pharma marketing — and inherent difficulties in reaching the physician market — getting through to your pharma customers with the right mix of branded and unbranded messages can be a challenge.

Marketers and sales reps often face the same dilemma: They can’t get doctors’ attention without establishing relationships, and they can’t nurture relationships without getting in the door. At the same time, regulations mean marketers can’t always use branded marketing to say what they want to say, when they want to say it, while unbranded marketing sometimes can’t make its point soon enough.

How to navigate the branded versus unbranded minefield for your pharma marketing?

One key is to plan campaigns from both angles depending on the stage of the customer journey. For a customer who holds negative connotations of big pharma, for example, overemphasizing your brand when he’s first diagnosed could negatively affect his perceptions. “The message, tone and offer must be relevant and engaging first and foremost,” writes Jay Bolling of PulseCX. “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.”

Other suggestions for maximizing your mix of branded and unbranded content:  

  • Figure out which subject matter is most effective in category. For example, writes Dr. Michael Golub in Medical Marketing & Media, branded ads lend themselves well to disease-related patient survey data and prescribing data, while unbranded ads can implement notices of board review training, scientific updates and info gleaned from professional social networking sites. Content applicable to both types may include brand-related info; efficacy data from major clinical trials; new indication/distinctive efficacy data; info about product samples; info on securing prescription assistance for needy patients; and/or alerts indicating first-in-class medications. “In the digital arena, however, where proximity, links and direct sponsorship can foster positive associations, the notion of ‘unbranded’ content may be a misnomer,” Golub notes. “Information, updates, dialogue and other communication that physicians value can be leveraged to direct an audience to brand-specific messages as well as to enhance a brand's persona without violating FDA marketing regulations.”
  • Consider identifying social media and chat sites of interest to physicians and using them for brand awareness, offering innovative and clinically relevant info, programs and resources. Note that some networking sites catering to professional audiences only allow industry participation, but others allow public commentary. Research shows 90 percent of doctors use social media for personal purposes while 67 percent use it professionally. The most-used personal site is Facebook (61 percent) and the most-used professional outlets are physician communities (28 percent). Many marketers previously steered clear of social media out of regulatory concerns; now they’ve found ways to introduce updates, dialogue and other info of value to physicians while directing them to brand-specific messages — without violating FDA regulations. In some cases they’ve successfully established contact with physicians through serialized offers for which the doctors must register.
  • Maximize your mobile campaign. More than a third of consumers and physicians use mobile to look up information on pharmaceutical brands, seeking brand-specific info including dosing, cost, safety, drug interactions, formulary coverage or prescription assistance. Seek mobile partners that can aggregate such content for your HCP audience, offer access to highly specialized medical sites and help re-purpose existing marketing content for mobile without requiring additional review from your legal department. Digital was previously used mostly for general brand awareness, but programmatic buying platforms are now helping pharma marketers focus in on target audiences. Some companies are even developing their own mobile apps that include brand-name drug information.

Finally, when deciding whether your messages will be branded or unbranded, be clearheaded about how your product is likely to be perceived by HCP and consumer audiences.

“As pharmaceutical marketers, we can’t lose sight of the fact that nobody wants to take our products,” explains Bolling. “Most patients perceive them to be a ‘necessary evil.’ 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.”