Daily Transformation: A Career of a Brand Custodian

Dirk Rossbach, managing director at VMLY&R Health, Milan, reflects on what he’s learned from the brand lifecycles he’s helped to develop over 20 years
Dirk Rossbach headshot

The following article by Dirk Rossbach, managing director at VMLY&R Health, Milan was originally published by LBB Online. Click here to read the article on LBB Online’s website.

A few weeks ago, I was asked that classic question: ‘what’s your career highlight?’ It’s impossible to answer. Health advertising is about improving lives in specific disease areas; how can you rank one milestone more worthy than any other? You can’t. There is, however, one personal achievement I find particularly satisfying. During the course of my 20-year career, I’ve been lucky enough to support two brands throughout their entire lifecycles; from pre-launch through loss of exclusivity. I’ve learned much from those experiences, all of it relevant today. Here are the headlines.

Right now, everyone’s talking about business transformation. Too right. The world is changing and we need to change with it. But when you’re working on an established brand, or one that’s part way through its lifecycle, the prospect of business transformation can seem daunting. How do you suddenly transform without damaging brand loyalty? In my experience, brand lifecycle management isn’t about Big Bang change, it’s about daily transformation. And it requires an agile brand custodian to nurture it through the journey; always ready to adapt, but always defending core brand values.

Our industry is fast-moving. Brand context is forever shifting as markets fluctuate, science advances and customer needs evolve. Change is inevitable, not just in the marketplace but in the workplace too. When you work on a brand for a decade or so, client teams and brand leads inevitably change over time. In the process, client/agency team constellations, their dynamics and chemistry, invariably shift – and you can find yourself being one of the few constant factors. The trick is to find the right balance between embracing new perspectives and leveraging learnings from the past. I’ve learned to emphasise the former, seeing transformation as an opportunity for the continuous improvement of myself and my team.

From a career perspective, that willingness to flex is key to remaining relevant in a world of non-stop change. But how do you ensure your brand stays relevant too?

Empirical studies suggest that four distinct pillars determine the success of brands over time: differentiation, relevance, esteem and familiarity. Considering these factors helps inject brand lifecycle dynamics into tactical planning. Obviously, launching and growing a new brand is driven by ‘relevant differentiation’, generally based on clinical features and benefits versus the current standard of care. But relevance and differentiation are subjective, and since we tend to believe strongly in our brands, there’s always the risk that we over-estimate what we think sets them apart. To combat that, we should always ask whether feature X and benefit Y are life-changing for patients and/or practice-changing for HCPs. That’s the relevant differentiator.

As a brand moves into the mature stages of its lifecycle, esteem and familiarity become most important to maintain market position. Esteem is not about the ‘merits’ of a brand – that’s largely irrelevant to customers. No, esteem comes from the perception of quality and meeting expectations. Similarly, familiarity comes from the brand being talked about and used by peers, reinforcing customers’ individual choice. Lifecycle management theory says the esteem and familiarity pillars are the most sensitive in terms of SOV and quality of communication. In practice, we often see a declining appetite for significant brand evolution over time.

So does the theory play out in the real world? I’m currently in year nine of an intense relationship with an important brand. We recently presented how this brand had behaved throughout its lifecycle to date; from launch positioning (“superior efficacy from a new MOA”), through growth positioning (“preferred choice based on a range of relevant benefits”) to maturity growth positioning (“trusted choice based on clinical and real-world experience”). It’s a great example of brand lifecycle management, from relevance and differentiation to esteem and familiarity. Right now, given the differentiation potential of later market entrants, this mature brand stands the best chance of defending its leadership position by activating esteem and familiarity pillars. The theory makes sense.

Once again, agility is everything. Look around and we see examples of brands that persistently maintain high market share despite new market entrants and generic competition. At the time of launch, these brands truly changed treatment paradigms – but they didn’t stand still, they evolved over time and managed to stay relevant to customers. How? This can only be answered individually, based on whatever constitutes ‘Esteem’ in specific customers, segments or personae, and in specific therapeutic spaces. Esteem is driven by various factors, like positive patient feedback, peer endorsement, quality real-world evidence, ‘beyond-the-pill’ support, or commercial incentives. The key is to leverage data to define what determines customer esteem for your brand in specific contexts. And be consequential: a strong esteem factor is worth more than a weak differentiator.

Of course you won’t reach the pillars of esteem and familiarity if you don’t get the balance right in earlier phases. That all depends on maximising data so you can understand customers through a personalised lens. Entering a crowded market is challenging – there’s limited space for ‘relevant differentiation’. Equally, maintaining an acquired leadership position can be difficult in the face of new, well-differentiated category entrants. We recently workshopped this challenge for one of our brands. We leveraged solid customer behaviour data from key markets to understand why certain customers stay loyal to the brand and why others move away from it. This enabled us to develop tactical plans for individual customer persona clusters, which then translated in customer persona-specific OC engagement plans. Ultimately, the clues to relevance and differentiation don’t come from our brands, they come from our customers.

After 20 years in healthcare advertising, I’m still fascinated by the concept of building brands. Every day is different, but non-stop change is what keeps us on our toes.

Ultimately, health comms is about improving lives. We have the everyday opportunity – to play a small way however we can to help our clients to do that.

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