Future-proofing your animal health brand

Rosh’s talk at the VMA’s House of Lords Debate 2022: Marketing veterinary medicines 2023 and beyond

From surviving to thriving in a fragmented future

Over the last 6 years, as a country we have faced lots of adverse circumstances – Brexit, Covid, now an energy and cost of living crisis; and globally, issues around climate change, sustainability and war – all have had an effect on brands. Covid 19 has so far had the single biggest impact on all our lives in terms of business performance and people’s lifestyles. For example, media consumption has shifted much more towards mobile, streaming and news because people are worried about the state of the global economy and this raises the question – when faced with global challenges how can we future-proof brands in a way that ensures they can ride the wave of uncertainty, rather than be overwhelmed by it?

Now from a brand perspective, if we think about a brand like a person – It has a look, a tone of voice, behaviours and it too also has to survive in adverse circumstances, just like we do. So, to answer the question let’s look at the things, that brands need to be doing to not only survive – but thrive in a future that is far from certain.

Firstly, brands will need to put the customer first

Practically, what I mean by this, is that brands will need to be more empathetic – more human. Because in challenging times either brands are helpful to their audiences or provide moments of escape. By demonstrating compassion, customers will feel that brands understand their pain. For example, a recent news report claimed that more and more dogs are being abandoned by their owners due to the increasing cost of living crisis. In this situation, animal health brands have a choice to either be bystanders or get involved and add value to help with these types of societal problems. I suggest that it will be the brands that go the extra mile to help pets and their owners with these bigger societal issues that will survive better in a fragmented future. Because the value of a brand is not just tied to the product, but in the experience that the consumer has of interacting with that brand.

Secondly, brands will need to be ultra-consistent

When times are uncertain and tough, the last thing consumers need is to be confused with inconsistent and disparate brand messages. Where there is uncertainty, I believe the brands that will thrive will be those that demonstrate stability, trust and reliability. So, having a strong and stable brand strategy is critically important, as this will give the brand the solid foundation to weather the storm of uncertainty and be something that consumers can rely upon, when they themselves are worrying about what the future might bring. Consistency can be achieved in various ways, which I will come to on later.

Thirdly, brands will need to be more adaptable

As we’ve seen from all the recent upheavals going on in the world, things can change very fast. And brands need to be equipped to deal with those changes. For example, so many brands took the decision to stop operating in Russia due to the war in Ukraine – not just because of their moral scruples, but because of the perceived reputational damage that might accrue to their brand. But for some brands like Marks & Spencer’s and Burger King who are tied into complex franchise agreements, to stop operating in Russia was not that easy. From a marketing perspective, especially, if there are financial challenges or staff changes with marketing departments, it may mean having to do more with less. This is always a challenge when the last thing you want to compromise on is quality. But this is where innovation and creativity come into play because they are both components of adaptability – which in turn is a critical component for survival.

Fourthly, brands will need to be more adventurous

This does not mean however, that you will need to compromise on consistency. It simply means that brands will need to explore and keep on top of new ways of reaching and connecting with customers. To some degree this should always be happening in any case and should be part and parcel of a brand’s ongoing understanding of how their audiences think, feel, behave and ultimately buy from them. But the brands that will do best I believe are the brands build flexibility into their day-to-day approach to marketing, by keeping on top of the latest trends, experimenting with new channels and technologies and expecting and anticipating disruptions. That way they’ll be able to proactively respond to change rather than be at its mercy – or even better be one-step ahead of the curve.

The fundamental issue

So, whether the problem is Covid, Brexit or Ukraine, the fundamental issue we’re talking about is that the world and how it works is increasingly becoming more fragmented. Because, particularly in the West – for decades we have enjoyed a period of unusual stability when compared to other parts of the world. But, as the Covid pandemic and war in Ukraine has shown, in some ways our stability has also left us complacent and vulnerable when big changes inevitably happen. And when those changes do happen, they result in economies, marketing and ultimately human lives becoming unstable and fragmented as well.

In terms of animal health brands, many of which are global brands, the question then arises, what will brands need to do differently in order to mitigate the effects of change and fragmentation? Now predicting the future is never easy, but in our experience when working with limited budgets and multiple international stakeholders, we have found that there are ways to be more resourceful and achieve greater levels of consistency and alignment globally, to ensure stability and better brand health.

The impact of changing licensing and regulations

As regulations and licensing agreements will inevitably be changing after 2023 due to our departure from the EU, this will affect the way brands may need to operate. The packaging of certain products may need to be updated, particularly if there is a divergence in the GB and EU SPCs. However, this should be less of an issue it when it comes to the global rollout of a campaign; because typically the remit for the global marketing team is to develop the global product proposition and campaign deliverables which are then adapted and localised by individual countries. Each country will have its own regulatory process to go through, and therefore, when marketing assets get localised by those countries, they will be adapted accordingly at a local level by those countries to meet the required regulations. Therefore, we do not envisage big changes in the way global campaigns get rolled out and localised, but it’s the bigger issues such as environmental considerations, trade and logistics that could affect marketing. For example, with the need for brands to be seen to be more sustainable, this could push up the cost of packaging products which in turn could reduce the amount of budget available for other marketing activities. But we do believe the future can be bright by adding a bit of creativity to how these situations can be handled.

The first and last defence against fragmentation – integration

Firstly, we believe that there could be merit in having a much more integrated approach between global marketing teams and their respective country marketing teams to increase collaboration and maximise budgets, particularly when times are tough.

International collaboration is no small feat, but over the years of having worked at a global level with animal health brands, we now see the future with digital eyes. In some ways Covid has opened new ways for us to collaborate effectively at an international level. ZOOM and other such video conferencing platforms have now become a common medium to achieve international goals. Who would have thought that you could run multiple workshops with several countries in different time zones to arrive at a global brand proposition? We were doubtful ourselves, but during the course of the pandemic we have done this multiple times.

When money and resources are stretched there are ways to do more with less. One example of this, is the pooling of country budgets, so that the overall global marketing budget is greater. Rather than have multiple countries spending their marketing budgets on similar activities, it makes sense for those countries to contribute some of the individual marketing budgets towards the global campaign budget. This allows the global budget to be increased, so that either more assets, or an enhanced quality of campaign can be created, that ultimately benefits everyone, increases efficiency and ensures global consistency with regards the fundamental brand proposition and campaign execution.

But integration, doesn’t just necessarily end with budget lines. We see the need for marketing teams themselves to be better aligned and integrated on global brand strategy. And the need for this is ever more pressing, especially in a world where everyone seems to be going their own way. This is also the case right now as well, when for example a global campaign is created, and an individual market may take the bold step to not use it because they feel it doesn’t align with their local objectives. Therefore, in order for brands to achieve global marketing consistency in the future, an approach is required that does foster alignment between global marketing teams and their respective local counterparts.

For this to happen successfully, global marketing departments need to involve their country stakeholders all the way through the brand and campaign building process. There are ways and means to do this, and this kind of process can go by various names, but the one I like best is what the Japanese call Nemawashi. For those of you unfamiliar with term, Nemawashi means ‘digging around the roots’. It originally referred to the process of transplanting a tree by digging around it some time before transplanting and trimming the roots to encourage the growth of smaller roots that would help the tree become established in its new location. This principle, when applied to business, particularly in a hierarchical culture like Japan, meant that if a proposal was put before high-ranking Japanese business executives without their prior knowledge of it, they might then reject it for that very reason. Thus, it was important that these things were shared early, so that these high-ranking individuals had time to buy into the proposal and even make recommendations as to how to improve it. In simple terms, what Nemawashi is essentially about is it involving the right people, at the right time, in the right way and at the right points in the journey. And this is particularly true when it comes to international marketing and achieving alignment with multiple stakeholders across several territories – each of whom may have their own country-specific goals for the brand to fulfil in their own territory. By involving country stakeholders at the right time and in the right way, achieving global brand alignment, consistency and a solid foundation for future brand-building is very possible. And in our experience such an approach works very well and will become even more necessary in the future.

Withstanding change and ensuring future success

So, to conclude with a big question? How will animal health brands be able to withstand the effects of global change, whilst ensuring future success?

Well, from everything I’ve said thus far, it would seem that at the heart of the problems we face globally is the issue of the world becoming an evermore fragmented place. And it is the very nature of fragmentation itself, that leads to more complexity and division, particularly when it comes to brands and marketing.

So, let’s look at it this way – challenging situations can either divide people or bring them together. And if we go back to something I said right at the start of this talk, to think about a brand like a person, the only question we need to answer is – what kind of a person should your animal health brand be? The kind of person that falls apart when faced with a challenge, or the kind that stands up and faces it? The kind of person that responds with humanity, or the kind that looks the other way? The kind of person that’s reliable and can be counted upon, or the kind that changes from one day to the next? For me, the answers are pretty obvious.

So, in the future, I believe the brands that will be able to withstand the forces of change, and do the best at a global level, are those that managed to be the best type of person they could be. And a key component of that is what is commonly called: Brand integrity.

Firstly, brands need to know themselves inside and out, and remain true to that. Therefore, having a solid platform for building the brand is absolutely essential. Establishing the brand strategy, the brand guidelines, and a having a localisation and campaign toolkit which describes how a campaign should be rolled out and executed, are the basic documents that every global brand that wants to execute campaigns in multiple territories must have. These ensure that disparate marketing functions across the globe have one clear and consistent understanding of what the brand is and how it should be expressing itself.

Secondly, at every level, global and local, maintaining brand consistency should always be one of the primary drivers when it comes to campaign roll-out and execution. There may be local variations to campaigns that suit the needs of particular markets, for example the need to consider cultural sensitivities, or local regulations, but even then consistency should be the hallmark of those decisions. By being consistent – brands like people become more trustworthy and consequently generate greater brand loyalty and advocacy. And it’s these things that also ultimately result in what every brand is after – a competitive edge.

So, to sum up, the antidote to fragmentation is integration, and the brands that will do the best now and in the future, are those that place brand integrity above all else.