What is a Brand?

Defining brands and why they are critical to success in healthcare.



As we start our column in earnest, we thought we should perhaps state our position, be clear on some boundaries and definitions of what we mean by ‘brand’ and why we believe brand building in healthcare is critical to success.

What are brands and why are they important?

At its core, a brand is a promise made and importantly, an experience delivered to your customers. When well managed, it can be an emotional connection that is hard to break".

A brand is not a product or a service. It is not a company. It is not a logo, a brand name, branding or a campaign. These things help to support building your brand and the experience by which customers interact with your brand, but they are not the brand itself.

At its core, a brand is a promise made and importantly, an experience delivered to your customers. When well managed, it can be an emotional connection that is hard to break. As such a brand is created, and lives, in the mind of a consumer. It is a combination of all communication and experiences, both good and bad, intended and unintended, that are identified with a name or symbol and occur both in the use of the product or service and in the course of day-to-day life.This promise has the ability to provide direction internally and externally, consciously and subconsciously, and is a way to fundamentally differentiate from the competition.

To use a personal example, like many people I am an Apple fan and have been since my first iPod (remember them!) purchase some years ago. I have upgraded to the last 3 or 4 iPhones without even reviewing any alternative products. There may well be better smart phones available but with the Apple and iPhone brands (the brand structure itself is a whole other case study!), the value of the brand to me means that I don’t even look. Steve Jobs recognised that a brand
 is so much more than a logo. He knew that Apple customers need to feel a certain way in their interactions across the Apple organization, and he built such a strong brand that it changed the way consumers think of technology and competitors are still trying to catch up. At the last count, the Apple brand alone is estimated to be worth $87 billion.

But we work in a field of science; our customers think rationally about the products they use. We also live in financially constrained times where decisions are based on cost-effectiveness and even outright cost, right? So where is the room for brand?

We completely agree that these factors are true and that the world of healthcare is different: its customers, structures and priorities are different. We recognize that pharma requires a unique approach to building brands. Even so, many of the fundamentals exist and the core benefits of brand-led thinking are true: it enables scientists to focus on the areas of opportunity and clinical teams to build the evidence base that will meet customer needs, as well as signposting and enabling the opportunities to deliver broad market access.

At its absolute core, the creation of brands built on customer understanding enables companies to differentiate their products versus their competition using both the tangible and intangible benefits that exist in the mind of customers. In view of the increased number of competitors (branded and generic) and the relatively lower number of really distinctive products, it is even more important to provide brands that can inform the behavior and attitudes of healthcare customers.

Brand communication has to be built on more that clinical factors

Still think prescription decisions are made on purely clinical factors? Then here are a couple of quick case studies from recent projects we have worked on that might act as a reminder that this is not the case.

‘But we have the best data’ was the exclamation we heard many times. On paper they absolutely did, but there is much more to decision-making than data".

  • Women’s health: a situation existed where significant evidence and data existed to support a key prescription choice. In interviews, physicians spoke at length about a strong clinical rationale. However, when probed, it turned out that for the vast majority, their behaviors did not align to this and their decision was made almost entirely on a strong emotional response totally contrary to the data.
  • Cardiovascular disease: a brand that was one of three new products in a new CV class launched in a similar timeframe, each with similar data. At a class level, uptake of the new class versus the current standard of care was good, but our client’s product was languishing in third place in this highly competitive launch environment. ‘But we have the best data’ was the exclamation we heard many times. On paper they absolutely did, but there is much more to decision-making than data. And the way cardiologists engaged with competitor data and the clarity of the story told by those companies meant that our client’s clinical advantage, although is was real, was not perceived as important to clinicians.

Emotions and brand perceptions played a huge role in both scenarios and only by understanding the underlying issues could our clients address the situation and turn around the situation. I am sure you have similar experiences to demonstrate the role of brands in healthcare decision-making.

The science of brand building

Do not think for a minute that brand building is a fluffy creative exercise to be left to the advertising agency. Creativity is absolutely required but building great brands also requires a comprehensive analysis of the market, the customer, the competition and other environmental factors. It is a science and as such needs a comprehensive and structured approach.

To nurture your brand you need to be clear on the profile of the patient, or patients, for whom you believe your brand is the best treatment choice, and understanding the needs and motivations of both patient and prescriber.

At Strategic North for example, our approach to brand building has been developed and implemented through the application of proven theories and models used in the pharmaceutical industry and beyond. It is the product of reading hundreds of articles, publications and books, reviewing projects and learning from literally decades of personal experience (we are showing our age now!). The reason for that level of effort on our part is that we fully understand that both art and science is required; creativity and consistency, left brain and right. 

We always think of successful brands are like large oaks; particularly in today’s increasingly payer-dominated, price-sensitive environment. They start from the small acorns of the single new patient for whom a HCP decides to prescribe. To nurture your brand you need to be clear on the profile of the patient, or patients, for whom you believe your brand is the best treatment choice, and understanding the needs and motivations of both patient and prescriber.

This is an absolutely critical foundation that R&D, marketing and sales teams need to have to give a prescriber the confidence to write that first script, build brand confidence and change long-term prescribing behaviors. As with the Apple example described earlier, this can only be uncovered by a deep understanding of the market and customers: how they live, feel, think and ‘buy’.

There are no shortcuts to building great brands but it is worth the effort. We know brand building in healthcare works and how it can translate to strong customer preferences and brand performance.


David Coleiro and Michael White are Directors at Strategic North. Both have around 20 years of global experience within pharma insight, brand and commercial roles. In their ‘Building Purposeful Brands’ column they share their unique insights on the world of healthcare and healthcare brands.

Strategic North is a healthcare marketing agency that works with clients in the pharmaceutical industry around the globe to build the successful brands of today and tomorrow, grounded in human insight and scientific understanding. David, Michael and their colleagues tweet @StrategicNorth and blog at www.strategicnorth.com/blog


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