How GSK’s digital transformation enabled it to ditch ‘safe’ advertising

GSK has introduced a marketing capability programme – MIQ – as it looks to upskill staff around its new model for brand building and marketing in a digital world.

GSK oral health brands

GSK has introduced a marketing capability programme as it looks to transform marketing at the business by defining a new model for brand building and rethinking “safe” advertising in the healthcare sector.

The programme, called Marketing IQ (or MIQ for short), aims to “reboot” the marketing skillset at GSK. It aims to upskill marketers on the GSK “philosophy on marketing” as well as marketing in a digital world, with the goal of ensuring its marketing function embeds all aspects of the discipline from insights and analytics to media and content.

The marketing curriculum has an online component but is also being taken across 21 of GSK’s markets and in its category teams. And while digital transformation is a key reason for launching the programme, that doesn’t mean GSK wants to create a separate digital function.

“[This is about] how we reboot the marketing skillset at GSK and how we make sure digital upskilling isn’t about a separate [function] but how we think about marketing in a digital world,” GSK’s chief digital officer Marc Speichert tells Marketing Week. “It’s not about creating a separate digital function on the side… it’s about a marketing services organisation where [all the functions] are embedded.”

The focus for MIQ has been “getting the foundations right”, according to GSK’s top marketer Carlton Lawson. That means marketers are getting training in areas including programmatic, content and search optimisation.

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Lawson admits that GSK has had “an ambition” around digital marketing since 2010, but that it was finding it very difficult to get beyond that ambition other than having a “draconian we will spend 20% of our media [in digital]”. However, what that led to was marketers spending budgets on banner and display advertising that might have had poor ROI but felt “safe”.

“When you analyse why we were stuck, it’s because we didn’t create a safe environment for people to put their hands up and say, ‘I really don’t understand how to do this, I don’t understand search engine optimisation or search strategy’, they didn’t know where to begin,” he explains.

To address these issues, Lawson hired Speichert as CDO in early 2017 and built a marketing services division under him. Speichert joined from Google and has previously worked at L’Oréal on digital transformation.

“What I really wanted to do, and Marc is able to deliver, is to build the foundations, create a learning organisation, a cultural shift where it’s ok if you don’t know how to do it but what’s not OK is people not stepping out and learning how to do it,” he explains.

When you analyse why we were stuck, it’s because we didn’t create a safe environment for people to put their hands up and say, ‘I really don’t understand how to do this’.

Carlton Lawson, GSK

Speichert says “going back to basics”, particularly in search, has been key. There are more than 150 billion searches a month (one in every 20 searches on Google) around healthcare, making the area “super strategic” but one where GSK didn’t have much rigour.

Over the past 12 months it has looked at language and the type of searches where it wants to compete and own or where the company just wants to participate, and creating a framework and templates that each market can use.

The result of that has been an increase in ROI, although Lawson won’t give details. In the same vein, ROI on programmatic is “increasingly strong”.

“We’ve seen a dramatic improvement in our digital savviness, we are now competing within our peer group of Unilever, etc. We’ve got a long way to go but our ambition is to be the best digital marketers in healthcare,” he adds.

While marketers are being upskilled, execs across the business are also looking to improve their capabilities. GSK has set up a ‘Digital Advisory Board’ that matches its own execs with those from other companies so it can draw on their expertise. These experts include people such as Dana Anderson, chief transformation officer at consultancy MediaLink and former Mondelēz CMO.

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The aim is for the whole company to be thinking about the transformation, not just marketing, with the board members tasked with challenging GSK execs on their long-term strategy and the transformation of their own function.

“It is very much about transforming the whole enterprise. Marketing is the core engine, but if the functions around it are not enabling how we are going to do marketing in a digital world then that becomes a barrier,” explains Speichert.

“Most companies are not thinking about it holistically, at least in the consumer packaged goods space. Even some of the past companies I have worked for have made great progress on the marketing side, but are old school in some of the other spaces, which in the end stops you from a scale perspective from becoming disruptive, rather than being disrupted yourself.”

GSK’s marketing philosophy

Another area of focus has been embedding GSK’s marketing philosophy across the business. The company has been through a period of change having taken full ownership of the joint venture with Novartis and hired a number of people from outside the business (usually from other FMCG companies) to help with its transformation. What that means is that while business performance was improving, GSK didn’t have a “GSK way of doing marketing”.

To address that, Lawson changed GSK’s marketing philosophy from ‘Building category defining brands consumers love’ to ‘Building brands trusted for life’. That shift came about because when GSK looked at why a consumer chooses one of its brands rather than private label, it is not “because of love”, which Lawson says is hard to define and measure”, but trust.

Lawson then took the principles of the Ehrenberg Bass Institute as a model for growth. GSK currently reaches about one billion consumers annually, but sees a big opportunity to reach the other 6.6 billion if it can “reach people with the right product at the right price at the right time”.

Four GSK, those principles encapsulate four things: defining the category broadly (so oral health rather than toothpaste for a brand such as Sensodyne), building distinctive and meaningful brands, building brands that get noticed and remembered, and building brands that are available and accessible.

To bring the changes to life through advertising, Lawson has also charged marketers with basing its marketing on “true deep insight not physiological observations”. That means, for example, that advertising for indigestion will no longer be about someone “not feeling themselves and taking a Tum’s so they can be the life and soul of the party”. Instead Tum’s in the US now runs advertising based on the insight that indigestion is the “food I love fighting back” with a campaign called ‘Food fights’.

“That problem/solution advertising has worked and built brands, but it lacks persuasion and engagement. What we’re trying to do on our creative journey and the capabilities we are trying to build is getting to the deep human truth,” he adds.

Agencies are key in rethinking how GSK advertises. It operates an integrated agency model, so while people might be from different agencies they sit in one team and are briefed together so the brand gets “media neutral ideas”.

GSK is also evaluating its models. The current pitch on Panadol is considering the holding company model, which Lawson believes will shift the pressure of managing and curating different agencies onto the holding company. It is also looking at disaggregating data and strategy from creative, a model it is trying on some of its skincare brands.

GSK is also in the midst of a media pitch that is considering “how we can best deliver both our media strategy and planning in traditional and digital – how we bring it all together”.

And GSK is taking other partnerships to a “higher level”. GSK is currently one of only two FCMG firms, and the first in healthcare, to own its tech stack through a partnership with Google (the other is L’Oréal). Lawson says that has significantly improved ROI and transparency because GSK now owns the data.

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“We own the data so it has brought transparency; it has enabled us to manage our media deployment more effectively [in areas such as] frequency capping and viewability. It is really paying dividends,” he explains.

The work GSK is doing through MIQ and in hiring specialists in areas such as data and analytics, and programmatic means it can now “ask much harder questions”, says Speichert.

“That is one of the reason we thought it was going to be super strategic to run this media pitch. We are making sure we are building our internal capabilities, but also the right ecosystem of agencies externally that helps us to deliver on a much more ambitious agenda. That is going to be a big driver of who we decide to work with, because we now know to ask much tougher questions. We are bringing that know-how back into GSK,” he explains.

Louise Kristensen from GSK will be speaking about its digital transformation at The Festival of Marketing in October. Fore more information and to buy tickets go to the Festival of Marketing website