Playing American Idol with healthcare brands: how cookie-cutter brand archetype systems can lead to dull launches

Several years ago, I was invited to help analyze the disappointing performance of a brand called Xigris (drotrecogin alfa).  It was the first of its kind to effectively resolve sepsis, a prevalent and often-fatal, acute systemic infection.  The company, Eli Lilly, had received an accelerated approval to launch the brand six months earlier, and had placed high hopes on its potential to be a blockbuster. But despite many encouraging circumstances—that it addressed a serious, life-threatening condition, that it was the only one of its kind, that it was reasonably priced and easy to administer—the medical community did not embrace it as enthusiastically as hoped.

At the time, Lilly prided itself on its systematic approach to launching brands, and their strong track record validated this pride.  Like many other such companies, they have perfected an exhaustive process for evaluating the market potential: a stepwise blueprint covering every angle on how to commercialize a product from market opportunity to segmentation to resource allocation to ROI.  And they applied this process to every single brand in their portfolio, never eliminating or changing a step to insure adherence to this trusted formula.  What went wrong?

Lilly was then employing an archetyping system, a wise way to benchmark and learn from past experience.  And in this archetyping system, Xigris was slotted into the category of a Leadership Brand.  Lilly defined a Leadership Brand as one that captures the lion’s share of the market, drives the debate on authoritative treatment, and produces peak revenue of at least a billion dollars annually.  In other words, the archetype is retrospectively conceived: based on market performance metrics of similar “first to market” products.  Let’s think about this.

This approach to archetyping is much like the way American Idol discovers its “winners.”  If you want to construct a predictive model of who would make a successful pop star, you might do an audit of several successful pop stars’ qualities (good looks, great vocal range, versatility across genres, stage presence etc.).  Then you could audition individuals who possess such qualities, find the one that matches best, and then bet the bank on his or her first album sales. But how to explain successful stars such as Bob Dylan, Michael Stipe of REM, or the bluesy artist Tom Waits, none of whom are good looking or have great vocal ranges?  The answer, of course, is originality.  Herein lies the problem in today’s overly systematic approach to predicting brand success: the question should not be “what qualities make up a Leadership Brand,” but rather “what are the different and unique ways that brands grow up to be leaders?”

Conventional wisdom suggests that every effort should be made when creating a brand’s identity (the unique idea the brand owns in the marketplace) to single out and nurture the distinctive promise and personality that set it apart from the competition.  So why does this savvy call for originality go unheeded when it comes to commercializing and marketing these brands?  The root of the problem faced by Xigris is to be found in a system that had greater tolerance for protocol than for originality.  In other words, we should take care to make sure that we are marketing the brand rather than just marketing the process.

Benchmarking a brand’s activity is certainly not a new concept.  Developing a rigorous and objective perspective on how to measure your brand’s current or future performance is vital to strategic and tactical planning, and for keeping the brand on a course to fulfill its best destiny.  Existing models have focused on criteria from financial potential (e.g. What characterizes billion dollar brands?) to therapeutic category excellence (e.g. What defines leadership in cardiovascular brands?), which often have great value in helping to inform tactical decisions about resource allocation, spend levels, sales force deployment and so on.  However, a closer examination of billion-dollar brands (and/or leadership brands) shows that they achieved their successes in very different ways.  Further, if your brand is not destined to be the most successful in its category, a new benchmarking approach is needed to provide more actionable direction and account for the unique situation in which each brand finds itself.

As contradictory as this may sound, the best benchmarking system must account for the possibility that its rules are meant to be flexible and intuitive.  That is, rather than being retrospectively conceived, like the one that launched Xigris, an intuitive system is prospectively conceived, and embraces the reality of changing perceptions about how your brand should approach the market as the situation evolves.

Brand Diagnosticssm: an intuitive perspective on benchmarking your brand

Brand Diagnostics is a proprietary process specifically designed to help brand teams develop a consensus on a brand’s best initial path to success based on 1) the inherent characteristics of the brand, 2) the market dynamics in which it finds itself at launch, and 3) the behaviors of existing brands in similar situations—regardless of income potential or therapeutic category. Every successful brand launch falls into one of these five categories of Brand Diagnostics:

Creation Brand: A product or service that must create a need in customers’ minds in order to establish its greatest purpose.  The H2 receptor antagonist, Zantac, had to first create a need for the relief of GERD (gastro esophageal reflux disorder) before its true value could be appreciated. It was a revolutionary concept.

Evolution Brand: A product or service that has an inherent attribute enabling it to perform better than like brands on an established set of expectations.  Lipitor didn’t create the statin category; Mevacor did.  Lipitor just outperformed other agents on the “lower is better” paradigm for cholesterol management.  It was an evolutionary (vs. revolutionary) advantage.

Opportunistic Brand: A product or service that has similar attributes to existing brands in an established set of expectations.  Effexor didn’t have enough going for it to truly break away from the dominant SSRIs, Prozac, Paxil and Zoloft.  So it had to segment an “opportunity” in order to differentiate itself.  Effexor targeted moderate-to-severe depression at launch, and soon began to own that segment, while broadening its utility as it evolved.

Franchise Brand: A product or service with applications to distinctly different audiences for a variety of distinct uses.  Here, we are talking about a single-brand franchise.  Botox is used by plastic surgeons and dermatologists for cosmetic use.  However it has many indications across many different specialties: migraine prevention (pain specialists), spasticity (neurologists), OAB (urologists), and so on.  Franchise brands must forge a single brand identity that appeals across the board.

Turbo Brand: A product or service that finds its greatest purpose in how it enhances other brands or applications.  Gemzar, a chemotherapeutic agent indicated for pancreatic, breast and non-small cell lung cancers, is an effective and well-tolerated therapy.  However, it finds its best destiny as the key ingredient that makes the drug cocktail stronger and better.

As you can see, these categories are based on brand behavior rather than brand performance, so the model is flexible enough to accommodate any brand in any field.  It is important to note that no single category is more or less desirable than the others; each contains brand examples that have been highly successful. Once a diagnostic category is agreed upon, it sets forth a series of immediate actions the brand must address to achieve its goals, all benchmarked against other brands that faced similar circumstances at launch.  Xigris, as it turned out, was a Creation Brand because there is no consensus on a definition of sepsis, no single physician specialty dedicated to treating it, and—at the time—no insurance code for reimbursement.  Xigris needed to create the market for which it had genuine value.  It never achieved the assigned goals of what Lilly characterized as a Leadership brand.  This is not the fault of the brand, but rather of an archetyping model that doesn’t account for originality in how brands become leaders.

Lastly, is not only possible but also likely that brands that begin in one diagnostic category may end up moving to another category.  Hence, the need to revisit the Brand Diagnostic exercise over time and/or in response to significant changes in the market, such as a competitive introduction, a new indication or even cultural shifts in society.  The benefit of such an intuitive system creates a definitive and defensible action plan for a brand, yet anticipates that the plan must change, thus emphasizing the marketing of the brand over the marketing of a rigid process.

We all may get excited and cheer for the winner of American Idol.  But after each season ends, how many of the singers do we remember?  For every Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood, there are way too many Lee DeWyze’s to risk banking on a poor archetyping model.

2 Responses to “Playing American Idol with healthcare brands: how cookie-cutter brand archetype systems can lead to dull launches”

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  1. Suzanne says:

    This is a really refreshing take on a topic that unfortunately has been “hijacked” by market research companies. For many clients, archetypes now refers to Jungian archetypes used as stimuli during research — so we end up with many Wizards and Sages and Heros as criteria for agencies to create and evaluate against — concepts, tactics, and even media choices are driven by this nonsense. Now, where would a Jester go to make an informed treatment decision? Oy.

    • Vince Parry says:

      Well said, Suzanne. In my experience, it is not just market research agencies, but also some branding companies that resort to this cookie-cutter approach to sorting brands by category. Models of any kind, archetype or not, need to be informed by marketing success, not the other way around. That is, archetyping systems should define brand opportunities for success, not exist merely to be filled in by brands–the tail wagging the dog.

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