By Lorna Weir, co-founder of Elevate Healthcare


One key issue for healthcare brands that many of us know about and have seen firsthand is keeping marketing and sales teams in complete alignment as the brand message is developed and then rolled out in the field. In the race to get positive marketplace momentum going there can be a disconnect that develops in what we call the “passing of the baton” from marketing to sales. It’s when, even after all the work, time, creativity, analysis, and testing that goes into brand development, somehow a gap arises, or the timing is off as the proverbial brand “baton” is passed to the sales force.

This is especially a risk for healthcare challenger brands – biopharma and medical device brands challenged by their circumstances and environment, such as not having clinical advantage, first-in leverage, a unique mechanism of action, a breakthrough product profile, or the ability to outspend a bigger competitor. Misalignment can happen in those scenarios because teams are often consumed with managing multiple challenges, and frankly there is just so much that can be done with what are often finite resources. But what challenger brands do have is the opportunity to differentiate and propel their brand by elevating their marketing strategy and ensuring seamless teamwork between sales and marketing.

Because marketing and field sales are two of the biggest investments a brand makes, if the passing of the brand baton is off by even a little, it can result in a less than optimal use of those two big spends. What’s more, when a brand team struggles to pass that baton or a sales force has any difficulty carrying it, physicians don’t get the full impact of the brand benefit, and a brand loses some of its ability to get out into the world and do its best work.

It’s always good to have an experienced agency team involved in the process of passing the brand baton. But in cases of an identified brand “gap” between marketing and sales, the agency’s role can be critical. Experienced, savvy agencies get actively involved in that process for the benefit of all constituencies, including the brand itself. Here are some strategies to help challenger brand teams achieve complete alignment and therefore move closer to achieving their full potential in an increasingly complex and competitive market.

First, it’s key to fully involve sales leadership in the brand-marketing development process. Yes, you’ve done a ton of research to get the insights that have brought you this far but remember there are insights you can’t always glean from research that only come from real-world interactions and experience with the target audience. In other words, it’s different out in the field than it is in the context of research. The field force and leadership know things you can’t, no matter how much research you do. You don’t have to act on everything they say, but make sure that whatever comes out of the development process reflects to some degree their needs and wants.

So, involve leadership and the field in the up-front development. Don’t just wait until the race has started to work out the passing of the baton. Practice and planning beforehand make that happen more smoothly and effectively.

Second, there is a time when the transition really counts, and it’s often at the national sales meeting or in a similar context. Getting ahead in the first leg of the relay is a critical element of success. This is the time to take full responsibility for selling the brand to the sales force.

So, go to the national and regional sales meetings, get up on stage, and explain why the brand strategy matters to the brand. Get into those training sessions. Talk with the individual national and regional sales leaders. Answer their questions, assuage their concerns. And do not leave the room until they are as bought into the brand strategy as you are. If that means adjusting a strategy based on a new insight, then do it now. If your brand’s sales force is not one hundred percent bought into the message you are sending them off to deliver, you will be leaving sales and dollars – and possibly the future of the brand – on the table.

Elevate recommends making the most of the opportunity with a few key tactical elements. For example, alongside all those brilliant visuals and detail aids you’ve created, make the investment to build out comprehensive playbooks for regional and national sales leaders and their teams. Those playbooks should explain at a high level not only what the sales force should be doing and saying, but why they should be doing and saying it. And don’t be shy about the details. Explain how, why, and when to use a single detail aid, providing sample language to use, key data points to punch up the effect, responses to a variety of potential physician questions, and information about enhanced patient access. In short, provide everything that a salesperson might need to understand what her task is, why that is her task, and how best to accomplish it. Salespeople are not automatons who will go off and do whatever they are told. They need motivation and understanding just like everyone else. And every single tool we place in the hands of salespeople should be like an iceberg in the ocean in that what the physician ends up seeing should be a small fraction of the knowledge, data, and philosophy of the brand and approach that the salesperson carries with her into each call.

Another tactical approach that can work is to create tactics for the meeting that help identify the heart and emotion of the brand for your sales team. All the data and strategy can only get you so far. One approach that’s worked for Elevate is finding ways to make both the disorder and the value of the brand itself real to the sales force. For example, one of our clients entered into an agreement to market a brand for the treatment of bipolar and schizophrenic agitation, yet their sales force hadn’t had the opportunity to interact with the hospital psychiatrist audience they were tasked with imparting the brand message to. They couldn’t yet fully grasp how important the brand would be to the professional and patient audiences. There was a gap. So we went to a psych facility to get a firsthand understanding of what a patient with agitation is going through during an episode, and got a rare chance to observe and record how a patient’s symptoms responded dramatically when the brand drug was administered (with consent, of course). Then we showed the dramatic video footage of how quickly the agent addressed some pretty disturbing symptoms and shared that experience at the national sales meeting. When those folks left the room, they felt the emotion, they were all in. The message mattered to them, it was real, and the gap between the brand insight and the sell was tightened. Your brand might require something different, but whatever it is, find a way to make all the words in the brand message real and tangible for the people who are going off to sell them.

And finally, don’t walk away from the brand message. Stay consistent and focused. Marketers see the messaging every day, and there is a temptation to update or keep the message “fresh” every 6 or 12 or 18 months. Or, they might get new stimulus from the marketplace and decide that it requires a response, a change in the message. But if you have a strong message that the sales force has bought into, hang onto it as long as you can. Getting sales force buy-in is challenging, and getting it twice or three times, especially over a short period of time, is more so, especially if there is any significant transition from the last message to a new one. Very few developments out in the marketplace require a strategic shift, and messages don’t need to be changed just because a certain amount of time has passed. If you want to tinker with the playbook or the materials based on customer feedback that may help increase effectiveness, fine. If new data are available, fine. But the idea of going through these brand “refreshes” every 6 or 12 months just for the sake of keeping the marketing people engaged may not be motivating your sales force the way you’d hoped. It may in fact be de-motivating them.

All this is to say, never forget that your brand’s own sales force is the first and most important audience for your brand’s message. And the successful passing of that baton from marketing to sales is a critical component of success for any brand. The fate of your brands could depend on being able to bridge the chasm that can exist between even the best strategic marketing plan and real-world implementation in the field by the sales force.