Blueprint for Branding Devices

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As a veteran of the medical devices and diagnostics industry on both the client and agency sides of the desk, I am always intrigued, but never surprised, when I am asked why it's important to make investments in branding in a fast-changing business like medical devices and diagnostics. 

It is acknowledged as fact how important investments in brand-building are in many other industries. For example, in consumer packaged goods, we understand the difference between gelatin dessert and Jell-O™; and we feel something different when we hear facial tissue vs. Kleenex™. In the healthcare industry, we know that branding is also important in pharmaceuticals—think statin vs. Lipitor, or proton pump inhibitor vs. Nexium. And the branding axioms apply in the healthcare provider sector as well: compare hospital with The Cleveland Clinic.

Why is it important to invest in branding, including investments that may feel “softer” in a sector where product innovation is measured many times in somewhat modest feature changes in this year's model? For example, this year's product model may produce a test result in 10 seconds compared to last year's model delivering that same result to the physician or patient in 25 seconds. Is this “speed” feature change a real benefit that an end user values? Is this a sustainable competitive advantage and point of differentiation—or can a competitive product react and match or beat this product feature quickly in the market? This question becomes even more challenging when the only difference may, for example, be a model name change from XL 200 to XL 300 without any noticeable product feature change at all.

Investments in branding are important for the long term and strong branding involves two key components: Branding starts with the “master brand,” i.e., the company name or the therapeutic area brand name for a group of products; Then, after establishing a master brand, the product brand can also be established over time.

There are three key principles that are worthy of study as best practices in the first step of establishing a master brand.

1. The company name

Investments in the company name can help insulate individual products from bad news. In the cardiac stent category, there has been a tremendous explosion in the use of drug-coated (or drug-eluting) stents vs. conventional bare metal stents. Recently, however, there is a significant debate about whether drug-eluting stents really do provide improved clinical outcomes, or to the contrary, whether bare metal stents or even pharmacologic intervention may be safer and more effective for certain patients. Of the major players in this category, Johnson & Johnson has obvious tremendous brand name equity, specifically in the J&J name, although arguably not the specific stent model, Cypher.

Boston Scientific is working hard to invest in branding efforts to communicate the company's mission in this area, albeit with much less of a head-start than J&J's 100-plus years. As a matter of public record, Boston Scientific has been trying to establish its strong commitment to patient safety in the form of a comprehensive patient program, comprising education, compliance and loyalty, which will endure beyond the company's Taxus stent to its future pipeline of products.

Another example is in the area of blood-glucose monitoring. Several major diagnostics manufacturers compete in this large category of home diabetes testing/monitoring. In this case, again a corporate brand and master brand name has been critical in not only branding a product line, but to keep the master brand strong despite a short-term product setback. In 1999, LifeScan weathered a federal investigation of one of the blood glucose monitoring devices. The accuracy and reliability of one of the products was challenged. Many factors including the company's handling of the issue, the continued explosive category growth and LifeScan's continued presence and master brand strength contributed to the company's resilience and moving forward through that point.

2. Exploring new channels

Investments in branding are not just focused on traditional medical advertising. We all understand an investment in branding that comes in the form of a traditional print advertisement in a professional journal; a convention booth; a face-to-face sales call in a healthcare practitioner's office using a printed sales aid. But, to be sure, there are other less traditional, but also very effective, expressions of investments in building a brand.

There are many companies that manufacture and sell surgical instruments, including those specifically designed for endoscopic surgery. To help build its brand, the Ethicon Endo Surgery division of Johnson & Johnson has established a surgical training institute, adjacent to its headquarters in Cincinnati, OH, called the Ethicon Endo Surgery Institute. When surgeons are invited to the institute to view and participate in a procedure, the impression that is established is a strong brand connection—arguably stronger and more important than one made by the individual product names, such as the Harmonic Scalpel. Such investment in somewhat non-traditional branding will become an important factor as surgeons make recommendations to their procurement and hospital administrations.

3. A consistent message

Investments in branding take consistency. It's not enough to simply create an advertising campaign. Branding runs deeper than advertising—although that's a part of it—but includes a precise combination of the brand messages; colors; personality across ALL media; advertising; trade convention booths; sales materials; interactive/web space. And although a product manager may change, these elements of the brand should be guarded and changes should be weighed very carefully.

Another factor to consider is that sales representatives are an expression of the brand. For example, a high-tech manufacturer of devices or diagnostics might consider implementing tablet PC based sales materials versus paper sales aids. Not only would this improve the functional effectiveness of the sales organization, but would help brand the company in a way that would be consistent with its technology-driven image. Branding is, indeed, everywhere. And, most importantly, creating a brand takes time and consistency.

David Paragamian is a partner, worldwide executive committee member of Euro RSCG Life and president of Euro RSCG Life LM&P, part of the global Havas network

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