Does Your Brand Tracking Help You Optimise Performance in a Digital World?

Thought Leadership /
Posted on 3rd September '18


Strategic North: A Brand Health Special

In the quest for world class performance, how does a pharma brand team diagnose the health of its brand and optimise performance? ATUs and DFUs are the traditional market research approaches for brand tracking studies. Yet we know they are a source of frustration to forward-thinking market research and brand management professionals, who universally acknowledge their limitations.

This has led us to in-depth discussions with our pharma peers, listening to their concerns and frustrations and combining learnings from our own experiences. As a result, we’ve gone back to the fundamental purpose to ask, ‘why track brand performance in the first place?’. In this article, as we expose the flaws in the current approach, it leads us to take a fresh look at the purpose of brand tracking studies and understand how we might do it better. We look at both customer and commercial needs and how we can respond with a solution that is fit for purpose in today’s world, that optimises performance and ensures the time and money invested in tracking studies is worthwhile.


The current state of health

As brand strategists and market researchers, we work with pharma brand teams at a local, regional and global level (many of us have previously held roles in big pharma brand teams too), meaning we share an understanding of the real challenges and frustrations. We are immersed in your world. We get it. Starting with the traditional industry approach, let’s look at why research and brand teams undertake brand tracking studies. It’s claimed the basic purpose is to know how a brand is performing against KPIs.

How does our industry go about this? DFUs and ATUs have long been the pharma industry approach for measuring KPIs and providing year-on-year comparable brand metrics. DFUs (Detail Follow Ups) are usually conducted by telephone and indicate the HCP experience and recall following a sales rep interaction. ATUs are usually online surveys to understand HCP Awareness, Trial and Usage of a product in a therapy area and give a sense of what is going on in the market and the trend over time.

The outputs report on a particular field of vision, they provide trackable metrics on the sales force communication and the HCP’s perception of your product and intent to prescribe. Yet we hear that for brand teams, and their HCP customers, the current approach to tracking causes pains and frustrations on multiple levels:

Having identified there are significant issues which impact the speed and value of these surveys, it’s fair to judge the current methodologies not fit for purpose. If not fit for purpose, then let’s understand what is needed from a fresh, updated approach. We earlier cited a basic purpose is to know how a brand is performing against KPIs. But is it? What’s the end game?

The end game requires looking beyond the survey results and thinking about brand strategy; does the data obtained support your next step? Does it provide the scope of quality information that will help you make adjustments, e.g. to positioning, messaging, barriers to uptake, that will improve your brand’s health? We sense we’re missing a valuable opportunity!


Little by little, a little becomes a lot 

(Tanzanian proverb)

Attaining and maintaining competitive advantage, in any industry, requires ongoing monitoring and adjustment of all the elements that contribute to performance.

Consider the Rule of 1% – a business theory that small increases or changes to KPIs can have significant impact on the P&L. The Rule of 1% was developed by Jan Carlzon, former President of ailing Scandinavian Airlines (SAS), who back in the 1980s said, “In order to succeed in business and differentiate yourself from competitors, you do not have to be 1000% better at one thing; you have to be 1% better at 1000 things!”. It was a strategy that propelled SAS to be the top performer in the world in virtually every aspect of business.

In sport as well as business, there are many examples where this approach, ‘the aggregation of marginal gains’, has seen small gains add up to notable improvement. UK accountancy firm Menzies conveys the point with a calculation showing how the cumulative effect of achieving a top line increase of 1% in sales, 1% in gross margin, together with 1% reduction in overheads, will deliver a 27% increase in net profit. An impressive result for the bottom line, achieved by multiple small gains. When it comes to your business and your brand, it illustrates how small improvements across the scope of metrics add up to a significant gain; and a 1% improvement across multiple performance indicators is likely to feel more achievable than an end-goal big swing in the numbers.

The Rule of 1% shows the value of assessing and adjusting all the elements that affect brand heath and drive performance. But from our experience and hearing our industry’s 360° feedback, it’s clear that the current approach doesn’t go far enough, fast enough, to provide brand teams with meaningful data they can act on. As one senior market research lead remarked to us recently, “It’s like we’re just going through the motions. We report on the data and track performance, but what we do differently as a result?”.

Our strategic view is that tracking studies currently lack dimension and miss a valuable opportunity to (a) holistically diagnose brand health and (b) enable decisions that will improve performance (and the bottom line).


Stuck in analogue in a digital world

Remember the days of tape cassettes, fax machines and mercury thermometers? Some of us will recall the old analogue ways more easily than others and it’s true we’re seeing consumer trends revive the retro. But when it comes to how we advance in our professional and personal lives, there’s no doubt we live in a digital age where technological progress is embraced, mobile communication is the norm, and where email, live streaming and digital medical devices are now woven into the fabric of everyday life.

The traditional approach to brand tracking appears stuck in an analogue age – both technologically and metaphorically – with old generation methodologies and formats. But now we’ve identified the issues, let’s explore how to upgrade and reboot the methodology for your business.

In an increasingly competitive market, with pressure from all sides to do more with less, we seek value from every $ or £ invested. Recognising this need to deliver greater value for market research and brand teams, what does a new generation approach to brand tracking – that truly helps optimise performance – look like?

Here’s where we like to look at things a little differently. At Strategic North our unique approach combines market research and brand strategy (bringing the two together is our sweet spot) leading us to look at this market research problem with a strategic endpoint in sight. If we revisit the purpose of brand tracking studies that we defined earlier, to know how your brand is performing against KPIs, although that’s where the market approach is now, it’s clearly sub-optimal. What’s the end game? In our view:

Brand tracking studies must enable us to improve performance by delivering outputs that result in incisive, actionable recommendations for what needs to change and how.

It has to provide the right data, so we know precisely what to do next. What does that mean in practice?


Start with the strategic endpoint in sight

Brand tracking should have a clear strategic endpoint that goes far beyond the market research numbers. It needs to uncover data that bridges the gap between your strategic goals and what is actually going on in the market, leading your team to take action with clarity on what needs to be adjusted and how. Understanding this strategic endpoint, we can now rewrite the methodology to get there.

Our analysis of all the elements that underpin brand performance has enabled us to identify the vital metrics to assess and track. Positioning, brand perceptions, brand messaging, HCP engagement, communication channels, and the drivers and barriers to brand uptake are the 6 key levers that (a) drive the customer’s brand experience and (b) are actionable and can be adjusted by the brand team.

To appreciate the value of thoroughly assessing and adjusting the right levers that will affect performance, let’s return to the marginal gains philosophy for a moment. London 2012 Olympics, Team GB cycling, when performance director, Sir David Brailsford, lead his team to record-breaking performances and 8 gold medals by implementing a marginal gains philosophy to overhaul the approach to training and preparation.

Brailsford and the entire team were wholly focused on the endpoint: world-class performance … gold. The important metrics analysed the full scope of elements they could adjust, the obvious and the not so obvious. Outputs led to action, with each area of weakness viewed as an opportunity to make an improvement. For example, race recovery could be aided by increasing the intensity of warm-downs, sleep quality could be enhanced by identifying and travelling with the best pillow.

Similarly, the Japanese business philosophy of kaizen or Continuous Improvement – implemented worldwide in as an effective approach to long-term competitive strategy – recognises the value of discovering problems or weaknesses at every step and acting on them.

We know that if we keep doing the same thing over and over again, we can’t expect different or better results. So now focusing on our own world of pharma, let’s look at how these 6 levers drive brand performance and why they provide the key metrics that enable you to deploy new end-goal-focused tactics and strategies for your brand.


Where is your customer most receptive to your message?

Today, HCPs have time and budgetary pressures greater than ever and they source information across multiple channels. They are as likely, if not more likely, to research their therapy area and the relevant prescribing options via publications, medical education, congress and speaker meetings – with information often available online at the moment they need it – as they are likely to use the traditional sales rep channel. Consequently, planning and retaining face-to-face appointments has become harder to achieve: less than 44% of HCPs are considered accessible to pharma reps today, compared to 51% in 2014 and as high as 80% in 2008. This decade of decline for the sales rep channel has seen the number of reps in the US market falling from its peak of 101,000 in 2005 to 71,000 in 2016[1].

This decline correlates to the growth of more relevant channels. For example, a research study shows 1 in 4 sales rep interactions has been replaced by a digital channel[2] – evidence that an effective marketing mix today requires multi-channel communication. Yet despite the reduced numbers of sales reps, 88% of sales and marketing budgets are still focused on the sales force[3]. So here is an opportunity for brand tracking studies to measure the relevance and performance of all channels and direct where to focus the marketing effort knowing what mix of channels will provide the best ROI. If you can engage your customer in the best channel for them, that is where they will be most receptive to your message.


What positioning and messaging will resonate?

How a brand is positioned and perceived by the target customer right now requires an understanding of the tangible and intangible elements that combine to create this entity in their mind. Brand name and identity, product cost, trial data (tangible elements) alongside the perception of efficacy, perception of side effects, familiarity, peer reviews, patient knowledge (intangible elements) all influence the doctor’s prescribing decisions. But to holistically diagnose brand health and make changes that impact your customer’s future prescribing decisions in real life, we need to get under the skin and evaluate the extent to which the customer understands your brand positioning and, deeper again, how relevant that positioning is.

Improving your customer’s experience delivers quality data, faster

We are all consumers. You, I, medical professionals and patients, we all live, work and play in a world where mobile, interactive, digital media is the norm. It’s where we seek information and it’s how we consume it.

Gamification of surveys is a growing market research trend across all sectors, backed by evidence that a well-designed survey on a digital platform improves the respondent experience and delivers more accurate, quality data, faster. It also achieves higher levels of engagement – perhaps not so surprising, given how digital tech is integrated into our lives today. So, in the case of brand tracking and the problems with the traditional approach, it makes sense to embrace this trend and we’ve recently seen digital versions of brand tracking surveys become available – a positive step to drive engagement with more stimulating and interactive formats. Furthermore, there is an opportunity to make the survey more accessible and convenient for the HCP, by ensuring it is available on mobile devices. And what about after the survey, when it comes to outputs? Here, digital platforms can accelerate collation and interpretation of a greater scope of digital data, enabling a faster marketing response.


Team engagement drives peak performance

If a new generation approach can be more interactive, engaging and faster for your HCP participant, what about your team? And your wider stakeholders? Here’s an opportunity to improve their experience too, offering a more user-friendly digital presentation and interpretation of the data.

Consider, for instance, how an interactive ‘dashboard’ presentation could bring immediacy to your stakeholder’s understanding of the KPIs that indicate your brand’s health. The clearer and faster the outputs, the more decisive and responsive your team’s actions can be. And what about those next steps? How will you collectively respond to the data? Our experience shows how a well-designed workshop opens up debate around the implications of the research and encourages alignment as you work through next steps. Every upgrade in the experience will contribute to team and stakeholder engagement and increase motivation to pursue the subsequent action plans.


The next generation approach, fit for purpose today

This article is about sharing our perspective on how we and our wider pharma community can do brand tracking better. If we are better equipped as market researchers and strategic marketing professionals, we can position clearly differentiated, meaningful products that better meet the needs of practitioners and patients and achieve your commercial goals.

After listening to the widely felt concerns and frustrations with traditional brand tracking studies and talking with global and affiliate market research and brand teams about their needs, we undertook a project to find a better way. As specialists in helping pharma teams build high performing brands, we explored how we could address the current issues and deliver greater value for pharma teams. As a result, we have developed a new approach to optimising brand performance.

We call our next generation solution, BrandFIT™.

In the work we do, partnering clients on some of their most strategically important brands, here we share tips for how a new methodology like BrandFIT™ addresses the current issues and why it optimises performance in practice. A new generation and fit for purpose approach:

  • Improves response rates and data quality by better engaging the HCP participant with (i) a more stimulating, mobile, digital format that (ii) reduces the time it takes to complete the survey.
  • Assesses all the relevant marketing channels, to know the role and importance of each in reaching your HCP customer.
  • Identifies all the key metrics that contribute to brand health and underpin performance.
  • Uncovers what lies behind the metrics to accurately identify what isn’t work and why, enabling an informed, decisive, ‘what next?’ response.
  • Delivers user-friendly outputs.
    BrandFIT™ provides a diagnostic dashboard presentation of the key metrics with headlines that provide an immediate, visual, brand performance health check and a quick-access indicator of how and where you are optimising brand performance.
  • Presents outputs to stimulate and engage your internal stakeholders.
    BrandFIT™ has the facility to capture ‘talking head’ video clips from HCPs – offering convenience for the participant and making for a powerful presentation when the client team hear it straight from source.
  • Delivers research with a clear “so what” that informs tangible action.
    At Strategic North we pride ourselves on our ability to deliver actionable outcomes. Consequently, our projects don’t just stop at delivery of the findings. Ideally, they also include an interactive workshop session, facilitated by our team of brand strategists, to ensure the project outcome is a clear action plan on what needs to change and how.

The opportunity this new generation approach provides is a real understanding of what information sources and channels carry most influence with clear direction for where a brand will receive the best ROI for their marketing investment. It measures the impact of all the key environmental considerations to provide a comprehensive performance assessment, tracking results and changes over time, enabling benchmarking against competitors and measuring brand performance against intention. It clarifies how to structure and balance the marketing mix and where to invest to optimise brand performance, to make sure every £ or $ of marketing investment counts.

Yes, we’re excited about it!

(And we’re not alone in that)

To conclude, the purpose of tracking brand performance is to better understand your customer, how they are responding to your positioning and your marketing investment compared to that of your key competitors, so you can confidently deploy strategies and tactics to optimise the performance of your brand in the marketplace.

In an increasingly competitive market, threat lies in standing still or making do with sub-optimal. Finding a way to do it better, faster, where market research informs decisive strategic action, will drive healthier brands and optimise their performance; it is your new generation route to achieving a sustained competitive advantage for your brand.

If you’re curious about BrandFIT™ and want to know how this new generation methodology can help optimise performance for your brand, then please get in touch with:

David Coleiro –

John Grime  –

Dan Wright –


Download the PDF. article.


[1] ZS Associates 2016 AccessMonitor™ and AffinityMonitor™ study

[2] Accenture Life Sciences 2016: “The Rebirth of the Pharmaceutical Sales Force”

[3] ZS Associates 2016 AccessMonitor™ and AffinityMonitor™ study

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