How to bridge the healthcare brand gap

How to bridge the healthcare brand gap


While creativity might be flourishing in healthcare, the true potential of brand as strategic business asset is too often overlooked. James March, Category Director, Health and Wellness at Conran Design Group, explores how we can bridge the brand gap – with Andrew Gardner, Chief Strategy Officer at Havas Lynx Group, part of Havas Health & You.

In the world of healthcare communications, a long-overdue creative revolution is quietly taking place.

With brave and emotive pharma campaigns now routinely recognised at awards like Cannes Lions and Clio Health, as well as in more mainstream media, it’s clear that this is an industry that’s finally finding its creative mojo.

Clients and agencies, now more conscious of the incredibly rich emotive territory in which brands operate, are taking inspiration from consumer land, and demonstrating that they too know how to create impactful stories that resonate with target audiences.

While creativity in communications takes off, branding lags behind…

But despite tremendous creative progress, healthcare still lacks something fundamental when it comes to making the most of this newfound firepower: strong brands.

And why is this such a missed opportunity?

First, because a strong brand builds powerful emotional connections, enables longevity and flexibility, and brings coherence, focus and clarity to brand communications.

Second, because brand is one of the most vital strategic assets for distinctiveness and differentiation – something that’s becoming increasingly hard to achieve in pharma.

“Drug development has traditionally relied on the ability of a product to differentiate on its clinical attributes – efficacy, safety, and tolerability. As clinical efficacy and safety thresholds are becoming harder to beat, the pursuit of true product differentiation is keeping drug developers awake at night.” [Cambridge Healthcare Research: Rethinking differentiation in pharma]

And ultimately, strong, well-constructed, well-maintained brands – when combined with creative excellence – deliver greater effectiveness. And greater effectiveness leads to greater impact and shareholder return [Why Brands Matter, IPA 2022]. This means a strong brand can maximise the impact of creative differentiation; conversely, having brilliant creative without a strong brand can result in an imbalance – reducing effectiveness and ROI as a result.


‘Despite tremendous creative progress, healthcare still lacks something fundamental when it comes to making the most of this newfound firepower: strong brands.’


Why strong pharmaceutical brands require simple but robust foundations

For pharmaceutical products, the process of brand-building is intrinsically linked to the complexity of bringing a product to market over many years, through multiple clinical trials and endless regulation. Broadly speaking, there are three steps to building a brand in pharma:

1. A clear commercial strategy

This is about recognising the asset’s value and potential and coordinating extensively across multiple functions – from the clinical development programme and research to pricing, market access, and lifecycle management – to craft a winning commercial strategy.

2. A differentiated brand strategy and distinctive brand identity

Usually taking place during phase III trials, this involves creating the brand by funnelling all the knowledge and learnings from the commercial strategy into a differentiating positioning, brand model and visual identity that serves as a vehicle for the business’ ambitions. Done correctly, the outputs of this foundational stage are long term – largely unchanging throughout the lifecycle of the product.

3. Synergistic medical, marketing, access and sales launch activities

This is about expressing the brand powerfully with the right mix of brand-building creative, advertising, comms and activation. The outputs of this stage tend to evolve in a timely manner or as sales and activation cycles demand.

Pharma does the first of these extremely well: AbbVie’s $200 billion Humira is a best-in-class example. And health brands, in partnership with agencies, are building momentum when it comes to launch comms and sales activation – as recent Cannes wins evidence.

Where the gap is becoming increasingly glaring is the foundational brand building, which starts with brand strategy development and visual identity.

Looking out of category for inspiration

The strong brands we all know and love like BMW, Nike and Dove all have a timeless brand strategy and occupy a rich emotional heartland in their communications. And while they express themselves differently through different media, advertising, comms and activations over time, they’re relentlessly consistent in terms of how they show up and their commitment to an overarching brand purpose and vision. This strategy is what helps build strong emotional connections with audiences over time – and is what results in strong brands.

In contrast, pharma products tend to reduce brand to logo and colour palette. Not only does this mean relying on the same tired, homogenous visual codes and category tropes but it also overburdens the launch ads, comms and activations. These then need to express the entirety of the differentiated commercial strategy and build emotional connections over time. Not a small ask. And because ad campaigns and comms change over time (annually in some cases), this inconsistency weakens a brand’s ability to emotionally connect with customers and consumers.

From a positioning perspective, the focus on short-term sales and the uncertainty that surrounds a product’s potential future indications mean that at launch, a brand’s positioning and value proposition are typically built around the initial approved clinical indication.

But for many molecules, maximising return involves extending the brand across multiple indications. Often these are run by different teams under different management in a matrix structure. What might work from an internal management perspective leads to dispersed and sometimes incoherent brand experiences for customers.

In this case, a strong, indication-agnostic foundational positioning and brand is vital for futureproofing and avoiding expensive brand rescue down the line – something that we see fairly regularly.

How do we bridge the brand gap to maximise differentiation and effectiveness?

For those wanting to lead change in the category, there’s tremendous opportunity to build on and reinforce creative progress with a stronger emphasis on brand. This will result in more strategically coherent and visually dynamic brands that play a role in solving pharma’s differentiation problem while maximising the impact and efficacy of creativity.


‘There’s tremendous opportunity to build on and reinforce creative progress with a stronger emphasis on brand.’


This isn’t an overly complex problem to solve – but it helps if you’re able to learn from successful brands in other categories. Here are three things to consider:

  • Avoid overlooking or undervaluing brand development on the way to developing launch comms: the most successful brands are those that can define a category and even a company.
  • Remember that brand building is a carefully controlled process which is the summation of decisions made long before launch, but which influences success far beyond. In looking for a thread that pulls together current and potential future developments, brand managers must use human insight to reach the highest point of concordance, rather than settle for the lowest common denominator.
  • Learn from the brands that do it best. How do they cross into an emotive brand heartland that inspires a strong identity? How does this then build coherence and connections over time while providing a powerful platform for effective creative advertising and activation?

What’s clear, as the pharmaceutical sector evolves and audience expectations shift, is that brand has a crucial role to play in driving strategic and commercial advantage. Without it, companies risk missing the opportunity to build meaningful connections across an increasingly sophisticated marketing mix.

Healthcare products, by their very definition, are proven to make the world a better place; the healthcare brands we build will play a crucial role in making that a reality.

This thought leadership piece was originally posted on the Conran Design Group website. Havas Lynx Group and Conran Design Group are part of the Vivendi network.