COVID-19 is disrupting working life as we all know it. In the context of the annual brand planning cycle, we caught up with Jane Ayton and Peter Smith, two of our Senior Vice Presidents at Cello Health Consulting, to get their view of the challenges ahead.

1. What are the most immediate challenges to Brand Planning today?

Jane: “Essentially the basic components of Brand Planning haven’t changed. The challenge for pharma is that the landscape has shifted fundamentally. Everyone’s looking for clues as to magnitude of industry impact, but the reality is no one really knows beyond appreciating that there are some general themes. The one thing I feel confident about is that a ‘return to normal’ is unlikely in any sort of reasonable timescale. There is more likely to be a new norm – which we’re all going to have to work through in the moment.”

Peter: “There are two main challenges for brand and asset teams - how do you practically develop robust cross-functional plans when everyone is working at home - and understandably distracted - and what do you put in the plans to address the current impacts that you know about, and the longer term challenges that you really don’t?  I can’t think of a more uncertain time for strategic planning. The 2008 crash was significant but its impacts were inherently less complex and more predictable.”

2. Are there areas of brand planning that require particular focus? 

Jane: “It’s tempting right now to think that the answer is focussing on more digital content for stakeholders. With all the pressures the health system and HCPs are under, overwhelming their inboxes with well-intended but poorly informed content may be a quick way to lose even loyal customers.  Digital content may play a significant part, but now is really the time to think through how you put the customer at the heart of brand strategy.”

Peter: “I’d agree. We need to take a step back to work though and understand new pain points, as well as how significant changes in the patient journey are impacting management.  This will allow us to find new, compelling ways to interact with customers and hopefully provide relevant support within increasingly dynamic healthcare systems.”

3. What are the essential elements for developing a customer-centric strategy right now?

Peter: “Developing a customer-centric strategy now, means going back to fundamentals - for example, understanding new needs, how customers engage patients, how they like to learn and what they really expect from pharma.”

Jane: “Building deeper HCPs personas, long before you get to message delivery helps determine how we can engage them rationally and emotionally – the central tenets of Belief Shift. But it’s also really important to recognise and address the fact, that they are dealing with a new norm and uncertainty as well.”

4. How do we plan effectively amid a backdrop of uncertainty?

Peter: “One way of developing an effective strategy in an uncertain future is through scenario planning. While we may not have all the insight we’d like, scenario planning gives us a robust methodology to cover the bases and ensure that the core strategy tackles the most plausible- or most significant future possibilities. Done well, scenario planning allows asset or brand teams to make ‘no regrets’ decisions and build contingency plans that provide confidence - even though the future is inherently unknowable.”

Jane: “What we can do though scenario learning is really pressure test assumptions, ask difficult questions and manage teams through challenging ‘what if’ scenarios. It may be a little uncomfortable for some teams, but it is so much better to be in a place to know ‘yes we have considered that’, and be prepared with our response.”

5. With significant social restrictions in place, how do we continue to develop impactful strategic plans that engage the whole team?

Peter: “Supporting strategy development in a virtual setting is something we’ve a lot of experience in.  We’ve actually found it can produce greater quality of input and take less time versus face to face - providing the process and technology is managed well.  Obviously, face to face still delivers more spontaneous engagement but with expert virtual facilitation you can channel thinking, probe assumptions and drive rapid distillation of outputs ahead of the next group interaction. In the sessions we run, we often see improved focus and active contribution from all participants - and this is enhanced by considered use of technology platform tools such as break-out rooms, chat, white boards, screen annotations and polling.”

Jane: “I agree - there are benefits. We’ve all experienced face to face brand planning meetings where some participants are in the room in body only. Using our virtual format enables us to engage broader teams, and really hone in on critical insights that can inform the strategy. By breaking sessions down into smaller chunks of time, we’re able to build stronger hypotheses, really ‘pressure test’ thinking and build in more time for reflection and refinement.”