The need to re-consider purpose and principles in an ever changing COVID-19 world
Last week, Pharmaphorum reported that results from the Futrebrand index saying that perception of pharma and medical product companies has surged forward since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.  This is something that a number of people expected but equally many, myself included feel that any boost may be short-lived and the article itself noted that “the big pharma brands still lie mostly outside the top-rated firms” in the FutureBrand Index.
What’s more as pharmaphorum also reported in July, after the Futurebrand fieldwork but before publication of the data, “Concerns have emerged about access to some potential COVID-19 vaccines after pharma executives from three companies said they expect to make profits from their products in evidence to a US Congressional panel.” 
Set this into a context where we have seen a trend of growing activism on a number of issues around the world, where there has been increasing questions about the profits of large pharma brands and where surveys have shown that people increasingly expect brands to step up to the plate and do their bit, and it seems like now might be the time for these companies to consider reviewing their brand purposes and principles.
However having worked on developing visions, missions and purposes for some amazing brands in my career including some of the world’s leading global health brands. I would say that, to my mind, creating a powerful brand philosophy for a health brand - and delivering on it - is one of the hardest challenges. Looking forward, it’s not going to get any easier, in fact it is going to get even harder.
Nowadays the best philosophies need to deliver a triple win, something that is engaging and motivating for customers and employees, something that creates value for stakeholders and something that is good for the planet and society. It should be inspiring and deliverable, and ideally distinctive as part of the reason for having one; is to differentiate your brand from others.
Looking at the three strands of the triple win and the challenges health brands face…
For customers and employees
Finding a brand mission or purpose that’s motivating for customers and employees sounds relatively easy, it’s about helping people live better, longer lives isn’t it?
In fact, many current purposes (missions) centre around this thought of “technology for a better life” which is motivating but can lead to a lack a distinctiveness, as the examples below demonstrate.
- “To discover, develop and provide innovative products and services that save and improve lives around the world”
- “to discover new ways to improve and extend people's lives”
- “we innovate every day to make the world a healthier place”
- “transforming lives through innovative medical solutions that improve the health of patients around the world”
- “advancing the world of health”
An overall brand purpose isn’t necessarily a problem as, in many instances, brands have to recognize that they will in reality be distinctive rather than differentiated at this level. As has been said (and indeed sung before) “it ain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it, that’s what gets results”. This means brands need to think longer and harder about their values, their beliefs and their behaviours
A further complication is that the number of different types of ‘customers’ is increasing as is the range of products and services brands are offering. Customers, doesn’t just mean patients anymore. Brands need to consider patients, families, carers, practitioners, practice managers and procurement. With a combination of new drugs and treatments, the adoption of new technologies and industry consolidation many brands also have much bigger and wider portfolios which need to be accommodated within any over-arching purpose.
“Good for stakeholders” brings further complications, while most brands have moved away from missions that were all about maximizing stakeholders returns, the industry is still under increasing scrutiny.
The balancing of the required scale of investment and the often; long lead times with delivering returns that mean the company is ‘sustainable’ – can keep going, employing people, and addressing their needs – isn’t an easy task. However in a world that is entering recession and potential mass unemployment, it is perhaps time to rehabilitate the need to make profit and drive growth as this will help generate employment and provide some of the taxes Governments will need to pay back the Covid led deficits that have been built up
From great to good
Finally, there is the shift from focusing on becoming a great brand to being one the that does good for planet and society. Health brands obviously do good for society in terms of people’s health and well-being but as an industry it perhaps lags behind on considering its environmental impact. Packaging, production are two obvious areas where other industries have done more.
So how do I suggest brands consider developing appropriate brand purposes?
For me there needs to be a shift in mindset from making everything simple to a variation on this thought summed up by someone much smarter than me – Albert Einstein and the aim should be to “make everything as simple as possible – but not any simpler” .
- Embrace and master complexity
- Recognize that there is a difference between a brand philosophy and marketing with its specific (and variable) product and service propositions – where the need is for coherency not overly rigid consistency
- Consider sustainability even if it’s a CSR initiative rather than included explicitly in any new brand purpose
And perhaps as final inspiration, look around at some brands who have done this well.
For an overall purpose I like Lego’s “To inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow”.
For a fuller brand philosophy of purpose and principles an obvious choice might be Virgin whose vision is “To be the people’s champion, to make a difference” and whose principles are “Business should be a force for good; Stand up for the little people; Employees matter most; To do business like there is a tomorrow”