As I walked into the Javits Center in NYC in early April of this year and got in line, I had a sense of déjà vu. I had done this several times before with the same butterflies in my stomach and goosebumps on my arm, but those times were to pick up my NYC Marathon number. This time, I was getting in line to get my first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. It was surreal. To think that getting a vaccine could give you the same level of excitement as picking up your Marathon number. That’s not something I could ever have pictured in my mind, even a year ago.
While there were no goodie bags to pick up or running gear for sale, there were still selfies and group photos being taken (in authorized areas). And there was entertainment—a string quartet while everyone was under medical observation post-shot. Most importantly, it was an event focused on the health and wellbeing of society, which the Marathon is known for promoting, beyond the actual race.
As I marveled over some of the similarities of the two very different events, there was another stark difference. The brands that I was used to seeing – Asics, Clif Bar, Gatorade – were not there and not on anyone’s mind. Two brands owned the entire mindshare of every person that walked into the building – Pfizer and J&J. And they weren’t the sponsors of this new alternative reality of health. They were the heroes.
To hear people talk about “Pfizer” and “J&J”, beyond just stock investments, was not new to me because I work in the industry. But how often does the general public think of those brand names in their day-to-day life? Maybe J&J more often because of their baby products. But in general, those aren’t the brands that people necessarily think of as influential in their overall health and wellbeing. Yet, these two corporate brands (and Moderna, though not available at the Javits) are responsible for elevating everyone’s health status in the year 2021. And people—consumers, HCPs, and Health System decision makers—will remember this far beyond 2021.
This made me start thinking about a question that I’ve often considered before. Why, when there is so much opportunity to have a halo effect from a corporate or master brand, does the pharma industry choose to put almost all of the equity into the product brands? Why not take a cue from brands such as Apple, Starbucks and Amazon—companies that people associate with elevating our lives in different ways, regardless of what product you choose to purchase?
Having worked in the industry for some time, I’ve heard several arguments against building equity in the master brand. And while those arguments still have some merit, I believe they are not as strong today as they may have been a decade ago.
Belief #1: “Let’s not penalize our portfolio when there is bad news on another product.” The thinking here is that, if a product gets recalled, receives a black box warning or gets publicity for adverse events, it will negatively impact the rest of the portfolio if people connect the product to the corporate parent brand.
Consider: In this day and age, with Twitter, negative news will reach mainstream media within minutes with full transparency on the product manufacturer. Even if the parent company isn’t revealed on Twitter, with Google, it will be milliseconds before people figure out the corporate parent brand of the product (e.g. OxyContin and Purdue Pharma).
Belief #2: “What would be the return on an investment in a master brand? There is not good financial justification.”
- Rx brands are “temporary brands.” In the day where the blockbuster drug model reigned, it probably didn’t make much sense to invest in a master brand, when the blockbuster products themselves were the halo for the company, much like the blockbuster products in the CPG industry. Unlike CPG products, however, Rx product brands are essentially “temporary brands.” When they go LOE, the brand is still part of the company’s heritage, but much of the brand equity is lost with the LOE and cannot be fully transferred to the master or even a franchise brand. Couple that with the overall decline of the blockbuster model with no direct replacements for the LOE brand and the rise of personalized medicine. Essentially, you have a number of smaller brands fighting for equity without the same scale of resources.
- Strong master brands can create a number of business advantages, such as:
- Using the master brand equity to create strong sub-brands (example: Amazon and Prime) when there is an untapped market need. This also applies to franchise-level brands (oncology, diabetes, etc.).
- Enabling the smaller sub-brands of the portfolio to reap the benefits from the master brand
- Increasing credibility with HCPs (because it’s perceived as less promotional) that can be pulled thorough with field and digital promotion
- Deepening relationships with consumers/patients in ways that product brands cannot, particularly beyond the US and NZ, the only markets where DTC product ads are permitted
Belief #3: “No one cares about pharmaceutical company brands in the same way as other types of brands. They will always think of us as bad guys no matter what we do.”
Consider: The COVID-19 era has shown that this is not necessarily the case. There will likely be studies in the next couple years to show how the level of awareness of and affinity for Pfizer, Moderna and J&J shifted between pre-COVID-19 2019 to post-COVID-19 2022. Additionally, other industries, such as car/home insurance, have successfully used master brand strategies and advertising to change the perceptions that they are stodgy and out-of-touch. (Consider GEICO and State Farm.)
If we can rethink some of these beliefs, we can start to visualize the full potential of having a strong master brand: A master brand might finally solve the pharmaceutical industry’s quest for “value beyond the pill” and foster innovation beyond the core product.
While the industry has tried to leverage this concept of being more than just the molecule or medication over the last decade, marketers who have tried to be creative in this area have left legal, regulatory, and/or medical reviews feeling extremely disappointed. Compared with the consumer-focused industries or even the somewhat regulated financial services industry, the restrictions for the pharmaceutical industry are rigorous. This makes it a challenge to be inventive in creating value that is broader than the product benefits. A master brand approach may offer more potential avenues to build an ecosystem of value-added health services, support and communities—ultimately creating distinct, ownable brand experiences across the portfolio. And that in turn sets up opportunities for innovation beyond the molecule/medication itself.
None of this is to say that product-level brands are not necessary. Rather, having a strong master brand to lean into offers much more upside than making the “temporary Rx brands” do all the work.
That said, having a strong master brand is also a commitment. It comes with higher customer and stakeholder expectations. A company can’t drastically pull back on the marketing of their master brand during a difficult business climate without expecting some type of credibility loss.
I think back to my COVID-19 vaccine experience at the Javits and the positive energy surrounding two “big pharma” brands. Imagine if master brands were generally more prominent in delivering such health experiences. How much more of a connection would we have with that brand and its portfolio of product brands?
 “Business advantages” based on “Why Companies are Advertising their Master Brand,” Denise Lee Yohn, HBR, March 28, 2016.