In this episode of Connecting the Dots, our Marketing Copywriter, Sean Armie, sits down with Rob Spalding, Chief Strategy and Marketing Officer, to explore trends in brand planning.
Sean Armie: Hi, welcome to Connecting the Dots with Avant Healthcare. I’m your host, Sean Armie. Today’s guest is Rob Spalding, our Chief Strategy and Marketing Officer here at Avant Healthcare. Rob, how are you doing today?
Rob Spalding: Good. Thanks for having me on, Sean.
Sean Armie: So give our listeners a rundown on Rob. Where’d you come from before you came to Avant, and what gets you out of bed in the morning?
Rob Spalding: Yeah, sure. So before joining Avant a few years ago, I worked a little over 13 years in the pharma industry. Most of that time was working in marketing on core brand teams from anything from new product launches, pre-launches, to late life cycle, both in the global market, as well as in the US.
As far as what gets me out of bed in the morning, I get really excited about ideas to solve customer challenges and creating experiences that change behaviors, which I know sounds totally scripted, but it really isn’t. I really enjoy creating experiences that just connect with customers’ needs, and they go beyond simply just advertising or pushing out communications, and they go to really helping a customer solve their needs.
Sean Armie: Well, let’s talk about brand planning today, that’s the theme of today’s podcast. As it relates to pharma, what does brand planning mean? What’s involved? Give us the in and outs of brand planning, in your eyes.
Rob Spalding: Yeah, I think at a high level, I think to me, brand planning is just time that’s set aside to reevaluate your brand’s performance, based upon metrics and insights gained, make any large strategic adjustments for the new year and begin building a plan. And of course, telling a very compelling story to the leadership team of the type of experiences you can create for your customers. What is your accountability that will, for driving a certain amount of revenue, and oh, by the way, what is it going to require to get a certain level of investment in order to do that, right?
Sean Armie: Mm-hmm.
Rob Spalding: I think one of the challenges with brand planning is that it’s a look at a moment in time and there will likely need to be some changes to the plan throughout that course of the year, due to competitors, environmental shifts, performances, et cetera. And that really robustness that happens sometimes starts to dwindle throughout the year just because of adjustments need to be made.
Sean Armie: Well, speaking of changes, I know you’ve run brand teams before. How has brand planning changed over the last 10 to 15 years?
Rob Spalding: Yeah, that’s a great question. I don’t think fundamentally the general approach to the annual brand plan has changed much over the last timeframe of 10 to 15 years. I think you still need strong understanding of the market and customer insights that will lead to a behavior change, and you still need a strong strategy to execute against those insights. I mean, those are the fundamentals.
What has changed, is the focus on the customer experience. The industry has moved from really executing on a strategy with several tactics, and a lot of times those tactics drive content. I think where the industry is really moving to now is more about executing on a strategy that’s focused on content, driving customer experiences, in a much more integrated multichannel mix that progresses customers down a relationship running with your brand.
Sean Armie: What’s one thing marketers aren’t doing right now that you think they should be doing for brand planning? What are they overlooking?
Rob Spalding: Yeah, I don’t think there’s probably a single thing that marketers in general aren’t doing. With the clients that we work with, there’s differences across every company on how they’re thinking about brand planning and there’s subtle nuance differences. In general, I think, I’m going back to what I just said earlier, I think it’s really hard to create a plan in the third quarter for the entire next year. That means you have less than, really, six months of data, and sometimes it’s only four or five months of data, to really understand if your plan that you set in motion the current year is even working.
I think one option to consider, is asking how can I break my brand plan down into smaller segments to really understand, based upon data, are my assumptions, my strategy and my execution, correct? If yes, how can I pour more resources against that plan to continue to drive that performance? And if it’s not, then how can I quickly learn and adjust to evolve my plan?
Sean Armie: So what are some virtual trends outside of pharma right now, when you’re looking at the landscape, that you think pharma needs to be incorporating into brand planning?
Rob Spalding: Yeah. I think it’s a really interesting time right now, as most companies are really trying to do offline experiences online. And what are we learning? What we’re learning, I think is this. That it’s really hard to exactly replicate what happened offline online. An example of this is peer-to-peer programs. What types of additional tactics can you introduce when you’re doing a virtual peer-to-peer program to help prevent what happens to all of us, which is also happening to healthcare professionals, is they’re multitasking? It’s super easy to multitask when you’re in a virtual engagement or a virtual meeting. So things like thinking about it a little bit different and thinking about polling questions, how do we introduce videos, how can we have debates, maybe through the chat features, to really start to think about the online experiences differently.
When we look at outside of pharma, I think some interesting trends that we’re trying to really pay attention to is across a few industries. One, is the real estate market is really interesting. One, because if you think about it, their market has depended upon in-person walkthroughs for one of the most significant purchases that you would ever make, which is a new home, right?
Sean Armie: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Rob Spalding: So it’s a very [inaudible 00:07:03] experience. It’s also a really difficult and complex decision sometimes. So I think what real estate industry has done really quickly is they’ve moved to virtual home tours, virtual open houses, where they can engage with the agent in those virtual environments, in the actual house. And then also, augmented reality communication platforms really help sellers work with their agents on even staging their home to get it prepared to sell. So that’s one of the industries we’re looking at.
Another industry that we’re really looking at, on trend, is around virtual interactive games. An example I think most of your listeners, Sean, have probably ran into or experienced is those escape rooms, right
Sean Armie: Right.
Rob Spalding: And escape rooms are fun and great team-building, and whether it’s with your family and friends or whether it’s with your work colleagues. So how do you take an escape room that’s offline experiences, working directly hand-in-hand, online? Several companies have really created a very simple concept, that’s a group of people … How do you get a group of people together on a video chat or a text messaging platform, and then combine that with their online app experience to go through the virtual escape room? And you’re texting back and forth or you’re chatting back and forth, as you’re trying to problem solve as you go. I think we can introduce ideas like that into what we do.
And then the third one that we’re really looking at, which I think is one of the most interesting ones for us, is we think about how can we create more entertaining experiences, is what digital festivals are doing. I think this is really on the cusp and fringes of where they are right now, but it’s totally emerging. But I think as an industry, they’re learning how to really create this very community-based, emotional excitement online, that they can get offline. One of the great examples is Burning Man. They’re going to be one to really watch to see how they can transform their experiences to virtual. They always have great experiences and how do they transform that to a more virtual experience?
Musicians have already started doing this by putting on virtual concerts. One really cool example is Budweiser Rewind, is a new live stream concert series that gives fans the chance to experience the music that they love in a totally new and different, more unique way, and dive deeper into the content with behind the scene stories. The first one that they did was on YouTube with Black Eyed Peas. They performed from will.i.am’s studio in LA. The live music and storytelling series, it’s super highly interactive and it takes advantage of YouTube’s live chat feature, and fans can connect with the artist directly to even help determine what the set list is.
You’re also seeing this with clubs. Clubs are creating multiple rooms with rotating DJs to create something similar to what their customers were experiencing offline, into more of an online experience. And so while I think these are really different industries than what we typically look at, I think that we can really learn from them and it can help to stimulate how we think about creating these experiences for healthcare professionals or patients or payers.
Sean Armie: Yeah, that’s really interesting. That last example, it reminds me of how … I don’t know if you experience this, but I always find that football on television is actually more suspenseful and invigorating than it is when I’m there in the stadium because of the way the camera cuts, different angles, and I can pay attention to what’s going on perhaps a little bit better, depending on where I’m sitting out in the stadium. Whereas the same is not the case for baseball. So yeah, there’s a lot of interesting things happening right now in the virtual space.
Rob Spalding: [crosstalk 00:11:34] example, Sean, is RedZone is a great example of that with the NFL, of what they’ve done-
Sean Armie: Yes.
Rob Spalding: … of be able to have everything of the excitement of scoring, and how can they make sure that you don’t miss that across every single game? I think clubs are trying to take that similar kind of thing of, how do you jump from room to room, and try to get through a crowded bar, that would typically happen, but you can do it almost [crosstalk 00:00:11:58]
Sean Armie: Right.
Rob Spalding: … have a different type of experience. And so there are some great advantages to being virtual. It’s a matter of how can those help to be enhanced, to create a better experience, I think.
Sean Armie: Well, lots of exciting stuff happening, not only in pharma, but outside of pharma in the virtual space these days. But let’s dig a little bit into strategy. I know you addressed this a little bit earlier, but can you tell me what does it mean to be customer-centric rather than brand-centric? And is the customer the patient or the physician, and how does the approach to each differ?
Rob Spalding: Yeah, I think there’s many type of customer segments, or we talk about customer personas. For instance, you might have a target patient that you’re going after, but you’re going to have several patient personas that you’re really trying to communicate with. And the same is true for healthcare professionals and payers. So I think they’re all customers. It’s more about you think about them in different ways.
And so I think going into the customer centricity question, I think this means that the focus is on a specific customer persona, his experience with your brand. The focus is on the needs of that customer persona, within their context. So an example might be if a patient is being told by their doctor that they have a chronic condition for the very first time, the last thing that they need at that moment is a brochure telling them of all the risks and benefits of a pharmaceutical product, right?
Sean Armie: Mm-hmm.
Rob Spalding: How can a brand come in and demonstrate empathy, or help the HCP demonstrate empathy, during that important moment where the patient isn’t really ready to make a treatment decision? They’re just trying to deal with the reality of they have a chronic condition they’re going to have to live with for the rest of their life.
I think another way of looking at this is Clay [Christensen 00:14:07] used to talk about all the time, what is the customer’s job to be done? So what is the job that the customer is hiring a brand to do? If a patient is hiring a pharma brand to manage their chronic condition, however, the drug only can help them get to say a 50% efficacy level, then what are some other solutions that the brand can help to provide that patient to help manage their condition or manage their job that they’re hiring the brand to do? I think this is what we mean when we talk about customer centricity, is really thinking about it in the context of what the patient is dealing with or what the customer is dealing with.
Sean Armie: Yeah, that makes complete sense. Yeah, I think we’ve definitely gone away from being brand-centric to being customer-centric. I think you can see evidence of that all over the place. But how is the strategy around-
Rob Spalding: [inaudible 00:15:07]. Sorry. Sort of onto that point, I think when I started in the pharma world, a long time ago, we used to talk about what are the FABs, the features, advantage, benefits? Right?
Sean Armie: Mm-hmm.
Rob Spalding: It was always about messages to our customers, our HCPs, instead of really realizing that, hey, that that’s an important requirement of making sure that they’re aware of where your product can, what the features are, what the advantages are and how can it benefit.
But it’s really even helping that healthcare professional really understand just that if you’re working, if your drug is helping with diabetes, there’s complications of diabetes beyond just managing the hemoglobin A1c. And while we, a lot of times, are restricted from how we can talk about that due to FDA, there are other solutions that we can consider and think about that can help that patient that has diabetes really manage it better, instead of just focusing specifically on hemoglobin A1c.
Sean Armie: That’s great. That’s great. So how is the strategy around multichannel changing with changes in the digital space?
Rob Spalding: Yeah, I think digital is evolving really rapidly. There are new digital solutions that are happening all the time. Healthcare industry has been rightfully cautious with digital adoption due to patient privacy, FDA regulation, and on and on. I think over the past few years, the industry is adopting much more quickly, and I think our current pandemic that we’re in right now is really pushing that adoption even faster. As an example of this, during this pandemic, there’s been a really big spike in healthcare professionals being more active in closed social media platforms like Sermo, Doximity, Figure 1.
HCPs, they continue to really value colleague interactions. No matter what data you look at, and asked what surveys that they take, healthcare professionals take, they always say that hearing from colleagues or hearing from key opinion leaders is the most valuable thing that can help educate them about new medications, new data indications, how to help them with a patient case study. They continue to want to look to those national and local thought leaders for their expertise. I think with our current pandemic, they’re looking for other ways to stay connected with their colleagues because they’re thinking about it from their context too. Their world has changed as well. I think this is just a small example of how the changes are happening in healthcare professionals’ behaviors, and it’s going to help to drive digital adoption, I think, faster.
I think additionally, with increased innovation in areas like experiential reality, more specifically, augmented reality, mixed reality, virtual reality, it’s opening doors for brands to create more meaningful and more memorable types of customer experiences. So for example, with strong medical storytelling, I think that you can leverage experiential reality to help healthcare professionals to really get more understanding deeper into what you’re trying to communicate. Whether that’s helping them to literally touch a cell or go inside a human body to see up close and in real life what is happening at the molecular level.
So this creates opportunities for us, as marketers, with this increasing adoption and these new types of innovation, to proactively plan for how do we integrate all of these experiences so that ultimately, it leads down this path of changing behaviors. There continues to be a greater and greater amount of channels to reach customers, and there’s a greater amount of data to help provide these more personalized experiences to customers. And whether that’s one-to-one or whether that’s one to persona, it’s about how do we manage though, this increased complexity in a more integrated way? And it requires a lot of thoughtful planning to make sure that it’s not just hitting the same message over and over again, but is actually bringing the customers down a journey, along a journey, with you with your brand.
Sean Armie: Yeah, brand planning, it’s not just getting the pamphlets ready and sending the sales reps out there and hoping the message is received. There’s so many ways to deliver that brand message these days.
I know you talked about experiential as being very impressive and being something that does facilitate that behavior change. But I know another thing that really facilitates that behavior change or something that physicians, and I think everyone, really puts a lot of stock in, is data. Data seems like it’s everything these days. I know all the major tech companies mining it and selling it and using it. How does data factor into brand planning?
Rob Spalding: Yeah, I think this is a super broad topic that could probably be its own podcast by itself. I think at a high level, the way that I think about how can you use data to really help support brand planning, is really in three ways.
The first, is what I think most brands really focus on, is the … The first two ways are probably what most brands focus on, which is brand objective measurement. So typically something like how is a customer advancing through an adoption curve? This typically manifests by focusing on measurements that can help us to understand is the brand being adopted into treatment algorithms? And something like prescription data or APLD, anonymized patient-level data, are typically the best types of data to use for that.
The second one, the second type, I think is really about strategic measurements. So how are we doing against our KPIs, our key performance indicators? For example, what is the number and tier level that the brand is getting on formularies? How are HCPs identifying the correct patient type for the brand, in something like a brand audit? Or maybe even brand preference metrics, relative to competitors, could also be done in a brand audit. I think these KPIs are really specific to the brand. And so there’s all different types of metrics, but they’re guided by the strategy.
And then third type, which I think we see less common, but I think it can really help the experience, is that more tactical, at the customer persona level, to really understand their behaviors engaging with the brand. So this could be a collection of data for both push and pull type of tactics. Push being, email is an example. Pull being more like where are they going to search for organic search, organically searching for content, which could lead to a educational platform or on demand learning kind of thing.
I think these types of measurements, if we’re taking those kinds of metrics on those individual channels and tactics, it really helps us to understand how the customer is engaging with the content or engaging in that experience, so that we can improve on that area. Another simple example is with email, how do you do some A/B testing by sending out two different emails to the same customer persona group, just to look at click through rate? Those real life behavioral metrics can help you to improve that experience. And I think then goes back into the brand planning process of saying, by channel or by even tactic or different, the same tactic executed in different ways, what is that cost going to need to be, or that investment level going to need to be, in order to help improve the overall experience that the customer is having with the brand?
So, yeah, I think data is super broad topic. I think there’s so much data out there. It’s really about how do you make sure you’re trying to reduce the complexity as much as possible, focus on what are we trying to measure, based upon our goals and objectives, and enhance that experience.
Sean Armie: So do you think there’s any drawbacks to relying on data in order to improve content or try to improve the user experience, or-
Rob Spalding: Yeah, I-
Sean Armie: … any … I’m sorry, go ahead.
Rob Spalding: Yeah, I think data is fantastic, but it doesn’t replace, I think, the expertise that the, whether it’s the marketing team or the medical team, or who whomever is working through a solution for to help provide better experiences. I think data is an input into the decision-making process. We all need that kind of just gut feeling or that experience that marketers bring, to really help to interpret the data and make good decisions. A lot of times it may require, depending upon what you’re looking at, to go out and either take some of that data, so take some of those metrics, try have customers help interpret what that data is telling you.
I also think we’re getting more into a world of experimentation. So data’s great, and it’s kind of like the old tech development piece. With technology, it used to be what was called a waterfall approach, where you developed a huge platform or piece of software from start to finish, and then you tested it to more of an agile format, an agile approach now, to where you’re testing in smaller increments. I think we can learn the same thing in pharma, is how do you run little mini experiments with customers to see if it’s going to improve the experience or not? And take that data to try to really apply that learning to make a better experience and interaction with your customers.
Sean Armie: So I think we’re just about out of time. Thank you so much for your time today, Rob. What would you want our listeners to take away as the top three trends or top three things they need to keep in mind as they go into brand planning for 2021?
Rob Spalding: Yeah, so I think my thoughts would be for your listeners is to really think about how do you focus on shorter timeframes versus a one year time horizon in the brand planning process? Our world is really speeding up and it continues to get faster and faster, whether that’s looking at trends or looking at new innovation or adoption of technology or whatever that might be. Annual plans, as we all know, are typically outdated at some level within a few months. I don’t think I have yet worked with a brand, either at Avant or in my previous life in the industry, where I’ve seen an annual plan executed in its entirety in the next year. So try breaking that plan up into even semi-annual, better yet, quarterly milestones, and just learn and adjust.
The second thing I would say, is think about once you have a strategy, think about the experiences that you want to provide to each of those customer personas, or if you call them customer segments. While it becomes increasingly complex to manage at a individual persona level, it will be more relevant to the customer and should then lead to much better results. So if you spend the time upfront thinking about how to manage the additional complexity, you’ll be prepared to be able to manage those ongoing throughout the year.
And then the third thing I would recommend, is just set aside some investment each year to test and learn with evolving channels or solutions. Help your organization break out of the habits of investing 100% in the tried and true, proven return on investment solutions. The hardest thing that we get asked questions, or requests from our clients, is when they want new innovation, and then the followup question is, what is the proven ROI so I can help get investment dollars to support this initiative?
So if you set up an investment innovation budget during brand planning, and you can work with leadership to get that pool of money set aside, it’s going to be a lot easier to innovate. Because a lot of times innovation, if it’s the first time you’re thinking about it, or even if it’s an innovation you’re taking from a different industry and you’re applying it to pharma, there’s not an ROI. I know that’s really hard, especially when you’re trying to get budget for it. But think about how can you set aside some money to just play with, that’s going to be a smaller portion or percentage, whether that’s 10% of your budget or 5% of your budget, just some amount of money to play with, to understand, how we can stay ahead of trends that are happening, both in pharma, as well as adjacent markets.
Sean Armie: Awesome. Well, thank you so much, Rob. And again, I think that this interview was a treat and I’m looking forward to sharing it with our listeners. So thank you so much.
Rob Spalding: Yeah. Thanks for having me on, Sean. I appreciate it.