July 6, 2021

Brand Planning: The Quest for Validated and Unanimous Insights

As we all experienced, entering a pandemic had drastic impacts on the healthcare industry and exiting will be no different, especially as our environment is recentering and higher growth expectations are being set. While most strategies tend to stay the same year after year, there is little doubt in my mind that this will cause pharmaceutical brand managers to rethink their approach.

Whether we like it or not, the timing coincides with the yearly task of brand planning. These mixed feelings towards this exercise are supported by an industry survey where nearly half of the interviewed pharmaceutical executives questioned the value of static annual brand plans. They do not think that brand planning through current approaches, processes, and outputs is “fit for purpose”. They wonder if the resource-intensive, time-consuming nature of brand planning is even worth the costs.

It is unfortunate that the sentiment towards this exercise has gotten to this point as writing a brand plan remains the most important exercise for pharmaceutical executives. As described in the recently published book Brand Plan Rx by Markus Saba and Hilary Gentile, the brand plan sets the course, spells out the goals, aligns the organization, sets priorities, and states precisely the actions to be taken.

Based on these observations, changes are warranted for pharmaceutical executives to fully leverage this crucial strategic time of year. Several solutions have been presented by industry experts and the one that I think can bring the most significant change is the approach we take to search for insights.

Let's begin by defining what is an insight. According to Brand Plan Rx, an insight is a deep-seated need, fear, tension, frustration, wish or desire that captures a not-yet-obvious driver of behavior, a deep inner truth from the customer's perspective. To ensure we reach an insight and not an observation, the authors recommend digging until you find the why, something actionable, something the brand can truly own that no other brand has capitalized on.

Aciphex (rabeprazole sodium) is a great cited example from the pharmaceutical industry:

  • Observation - Reflux patients want symptom relief that is fast and effective.

  • Insight - The symptoms that no one talks about are the ones that bother reflux sufferers the most.

The result? The creative campaign "There's more to GERD than heartburn" where Esai capitalized on their insight to educate healthcare professionals and patients on the symptoms of regurgitation, belching, and early satiety (in addition to heartburn).

Not only can a great insight provide a foundation for a creative campaign, but it can also align and invigorate a cross-functional team around an idea. Fair warning, the quest for a validated and unanimous insight can be long and does not guarantee results.

A great way to kickstart this introspective process is the book Brand Plan Rx by Markus Saba and Hilary Gentile which I absolutely recommend. I especially enjoyed this read as it challenges the status quo of the yearly brand planning exercise while providing real industry examples and useful tools.

Based on the above reflection, OpenHuddle recommends that pharmaceutical executives reconsider the value of this year's brand plan. Coming out of the pandemic will provide many opportunities for pharmaceutical brands. To ensure time and resources are optimized, cut back on the process and focus on what will provide a true impact on the business. Whether it is to review the environment, build a patient journey, or mining for new insights, this year deserves a second look.


  • Rethinking Strategic Brand Planning in Pharma, Christian Wilkens Partner, Strategy&, April 2021 (Article)

  • Markus Saba & Hilary Gentile (2021), Page Two Books, Brand Plan Rx - The Marketer's Guide to Building a Thriving Health and Wellness Brand

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