How GSK plans to shake up healthcare marketing

As GSK expands its consumer health brand portfolio, marketing director for Northern Europe Rachel Deans is determined to place the pharmaceuticals giant at the forefront of digital innovation.

“How exciting can over-the-counter medicines really be?” That was the first question GlaxoSmithKline’s Northern Europe marketing director for consumer healthcare Rachel Deans asked when she joined the business 17 years ago.

One source of excitement at present is the expanded portfolio of OTC brands GSK acquired from Swiss drug maker Novartis in an asset swap deal last year. This has been accompanied by a new effort to put the GSK corporate brand at the centre of consumer marketing, as it tries to build momentum and trust in its products.

Deans explains that the company’s sonic identity, the GSK heartbeat, now features at the end of all its TV advertising, while its logo is on all press, digital and out-of-home activity in order to “hold the stable of brands together”.

“GSK is a brand that UK consumers trust and you’ll begin to see more of the GSK corporate brand as we go forward, which is a benefit to our brand portfolio,” she says.

“Our brands are the heroes – consumers choose a brand they love and need to use, so that probably comes first, but the GSK badge is one that we wear with pride and it adds additional trust, credibility and authority.”

Rachel Deans, marketing director for Northern Europe, GSK

Although aspiring marketers may not view healthcare as the most dynamic of sectors, Deans argues that continual innovation, investment and a high level of autonomy make it one of the most “exciting” and “empowering” industries to work in.

“I would love to challenge the perception that healthcare is a dull, heavily-regulated sector where it is difficult to do anything creative; it’s not true anymore,” she says.

“We are using all of the channels that you would expect any FMCG brand to use; we interact with consumers heavily through digital channels; we spend an enormous amount above-the-line and thanks to the deal with Novartis last year, GSK is a top 15 UK TV advertiser [in terms of spend], so we have real scale of investment.”

As part of the deal, GSK, which owns brands including Aquafresh and Panadol, created a new consumer healthcare joint venture with Novartis, as well as acquiring Novartis’s global vaccines business, excluding flu vaccines, and divested its cancer drugs to the Swiss company. The move means that consumer healthcare accounts for 25% of GSK’s overall business, while 75% focuses on pharmaceuticals and vaccines.

“[GSK consumer healthcare] is now the number one OTC manufacturer in the world with over £6bn in sales, and so it has become a real place for growth and innovation,” she claims.

End-to-end brand marketing

With the growth of its consumer division comes an increased presence on shelves in stores and pharmacies. Although other companies might place shopper marketing within the sales team, GSK has brought it into the broader marketing division.

“It was a deliberate choice to implement end-to-end marketing, where we are in charge of the brand from start to finish – from producing the digital campaign right through to what it looks like in store. We want total ownership, which has made [our focus] much more commercial and [brought us] closer to our retail partners,” she says.

The brand’s end-to-end marketing approach also has wider implications for the marketing division, with each team running its own profit and loss account, allowing it to make “genuine choices” about where to invest money.

“There’s a strong commercial aspect to the role brand managers play here so they can learn more than just marketing,” says Deans.

“I want people to feel as if they are in charge of their brands and empowered to make decisions. [Our aspiration is for] teams to be able to make the biggest possible decisions at the lowest possible level because that is where we’ll get the most creativity. It helps people feel excited and motivated that their decisions count in our organisation,” she adds.

GSK is now a top 15 UK advertiser in terms of TV spend, according to marketing director Rachel Deans

GSK also runs a joint programme of activity with Google to teach marketers new skills. “We’re very deliberate about testing things, so we’re not treating all brands the same way,” she says.

“Many in our team have grown up in the digital age, but we can all continue to learn as the world of digital seems to evolve on a monthly basis. So the partnership with Google is a real example of how important digital is to us. It keeps us at the forefront.”

As part of the company’s personal development programme, marketing managers also have access to over 1,500 coaches, who are part of an internal mentoring system.

‘Creative’ response to regulations

An inherent part of the GSK brand is its responsibility to the public when marketing health products and medication. In practical terms, this means the brand’s marketing division must work closely with the legal and regulatory teams, who Deans says can be “a source of creativity in their own right”.

She explains that finding a way to get the right sentiment across, while complying with regulations and answering consumers’ questions requires “an extraordinary level of creativity to maximise the space [the business] works in”. Using a scientist, rather than a dentist, in marketing to talk about the development of its Sensodyne True White toothpaste is one example of how GSK has changed its approach, which Deans describes as “more contemporary”.

The brand’s drive to be socially responsible and creative is particularly prevalent in digital activity. Although Deans recognises that not every touchpoint will be right for the healthcare business, she believes social media has become increasingly important for GSK, but it is not without its challenges.

“We are spending more in this area and trialling new mechanics such as programmatic and social,” Deans explains. “Social is not always as easy as we would like it to be, since we are in such a heavily regulated sector, but we are finding new ways to be compliant yet still have meaningful two-way conversations with our consumers.”

GSK has increased investment in digital communications and has a specific digital marketing team to support brand managers.

“We are not doing digital just to tick a box; we’re choosing what the right channel is based on brand and consumer needs,” she explains.

Some products, such as skin cream Oilatum, have detailed online content across a broad spectrum of digital touchpoints as “mums are really interested in knowing about the product and the conditions it can help”. For others, like smoking cessation product Nicotinell, people want basic information that will help them have a conversation with a pharmacist or a GP, so the content is different.

“We really vary our content depending on what we think the need is. That’s certainly been a huge change,” says Deans.

She believes allowing consumers to engage with the brand at their convenience is where the future of healthcare marketing lies, and she hopes the focus on digital innovation will change young marketers’ perceptions of the industry: “It is not a dusty place people go to at the end of their career.”


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