In the context of a rapidly shifting pharma landscape, we caught up with Gerard Doherty, Principal and Shireen Bate, Managing Consultant at Cello Health Consulting for their thoughts on how to approach competitor planning and response.

1. Pharma brand teams are facing many difficult questions right now – how is this disrupting the competitive landscape and planning focus?

Shireen: Right now, there’s uncertainty and disruption on a number of fronts and change is happening faster than brand teams are used to - this means now more than ever, that companies need to focus on agility and their ability to adapt quickly. I’m currently working with several clients where the treatment paradigm has shifted; chemotherapy and immunosuppressant treatments are no longer recommended first line and this has had an immediate impact on the competitive landscape.  Companies that spend the time now to consider the impact of these changes on their market and brand will be at an advantage.

Gerard: This need to embrace agile thinking and planning is very interesting - companies are having to face up to certain challenges that previously felt less important. The typical planning horizons are becoming shorter too - many companies are adapting their strategic thinking to focus on preparing for the next 6 to 12 months and are more open to doing things differently. This timescale shift brings with it a much more acute need to understand what competitors are doing - uncovering the opportunities this presents or re-assessing priorities. 

2. How do you go about understanding and assessing competitors to the degree whereby it informs strategic decision making?

Gerard: Thorough competitor understanding is vital, but this has to transform into a response plan that is actioned and integrated within the organisation.  We often hear that the brand plan is already locked down, so as a hired consultancy and particularly in the current climate, we make sure right from the start, that a competitor readiness engagement includes mechanisms that can be worked into each client’s processes and planning chronology, whatever stage they are at.  It’s also important to find the part of the story you can change – find the gaps that need to be filled and identify early where there is a willingness to implement change.  

Shireen: It is crucial for good decision making to look at both the relative strength and weaknesses of your brand and those of your organisation versus your competitive set. Properly undertaken product and organisational competitive assessment of strengths and weaknesses can identify important opportunities impacting areas of strategy as diverse as clinical development, training and recruitment, strategic imperatives and brand story. 

Gerard: I agree, smaller competitors in particular can behave in a less obvious way. You have to think about the importance of a therapy area or brand to them. The appetite to think differently and implement new things is also important – companies that are willing to learn, find those lightbulb moments and act quickly are in a strong position right now.

3. How do teams plan confidently for an uncertain future?

Shireen: Dealing with uncertainty is a critical part of competitor readiness and brand planning as a whole.  Right now, the multitude of influencing factors that make up the future are rapidly evolving and it’s important to get a clear sense of different scenarios - their potential impact on the market and on each competitor in play.  The purpose of plotting out alternative paths isn’t to predict what happens, but it shows us key elements we need to plan for and a sense of where the forks in the road are likely to be. 

Gerard: Tackling an uncertain future through scenario learning is also about assessing and hypothesising the extremes even when the scenario likelihood is low – this, along with the analogue situations we often share with teams makes the thinking more tangible and establishes a sense of reality that in turn gives teams a real platform to respond to in an action oriented way.

Shireen: Confident decision making in spite of uncertainty also comes back to this idea of agile planning – this can be a challenge in organisations with an ingrained planning process and rigid organisational processes. It’s a point we made earlier but worth repeating that without this ability to adapt brand and competitor response plans, you run a real risk of landing on great insight and thinking, but with no real means of implementing meaningful change or flexibility to adapt your course.

4. How does Cello Health approach a competitor planning and response engagement with its clients?

Gerard: We start out by making sure that the process fits what our client needs – asking the difficult questions from the outset that mean the project focus will bring about real change.  It’s important to understand each organisation’s appetite for doing things differently, to understand the perceived level of opportunity or threat and also each companies’ ancillary processes that could influence effective implementation of the plan. 

Shireen: We place a strong emphasis on the value of in-depth competitor simulations to flesh out what it feels like in the competitors’ shoes and drill into how they are thinking about their own strategies.  This CompetitoRoom as we call it, can be designed with different levels of creativity that brings the participant experience to life – staging or a theme really helps with the energy, innovative thinking and appreciating the strategic challenges.  It’s the action planning piece though that takes competitor planning beyond interesting insights to significant moments of change.

Gerard: What we also bring as strategy consultants is the ability to contextualise the thinking within a given market – we can ask the right questions at each stage of the process and challenge thinking because we have understanding across different markets.  We apply an agnostic lens on what’s realistic and often share analogues from other markets to help understand what will make a genuine impact.

5. With teams working virtually, how are you currently supporting your clients?

Gerard: Much of what we do is very similar. There’s a more involved need across the briefing and preparation stage and additional check in points as working sessions are staggered - but this actually allows a more considered thinking space and time to refine outputs which is a benefit in itself.  Planning in a virtual setting also allows for a greater level of flexibility – we plan the process to engage with a smaller number of key participants and can then validate and refine with a wider group. This ensures more people are involved at the right moment and delivers stronger and sometimes more rapid outputs. 

Shireen: Planning a virtual working process can be more involved than a face-to-face meeting.  However, there are many advantages.  By spacing sessions out, it is easier to inject creativity and drive collaboration across the participants.  Core team members are able to digest the outputs and synthesise the learnings more clearly.  And we find that the attendees are better able to stay engaged and actively participate. Throughout the last few months our team has embraced this new way of working and incorporated different processes and tools to enhance the experience for clients and we continue to learn and adapt along the way.