Non-marketers need strategic marketing training: the case for change


Strategic marketing competencies should be written into medical, clinical, regulatory and market access job descriptions, as every department has a part to play, says Michael Craig.

Pharmaceutical brand success is now entirely determined by an organisation's ability to prove acceptable (and more recently feasible) value in an accessible population.

To be commercially viable, brands must generate evidence to support the value they offer, showing a positive balance between the clinical and non-clinical benefits and the financial and therapy burden costs. The data must show an obvious superiority for a clinical need versus current options and demonstrate this superiority is worth the cost. Critically, these two things must be readily accepted by both treating clinicians and those funding the new approach.

Doing this well requires pharma to be more precise when developing brands. It is now essential to build commercial and access considerations into clinical development as early as possible and constantly through the lifecycle. This only happens when clinical and medical skills are closely connected to regulatory and access expertise, which, in turn, are connected to strong commercial understanding.

The increasing overlap between these distinct areas of expertise in brand teams is leading to a great convergence across pharma and a core communal space between functions, which is 'strategic marketing'.

The great convergence

In a cross-functional brand team, which disciplines are the most important?

Surely it's the development, clinical and medical teams? They make the product, pick the right molecules, put them in the right delivery systems and spend years developing and publishing data which becomes the competitive offer your company can submit to the world.

But what if you can't choose that drug because it isn't indicated or funded?

Therefore, it must be the regulatory or market access teams? They re-package the data and negotiate with their specific customers to ensure your brand is accepted and available for clinicians to choose if they so wish.

But what if, despite all that robust data for your readily available product, clinicians simply don't choose to use your brand?

So it must be the marketing and sales teams who ensure you maximise those years of development investment. Those glossy promotional brochures mean clinicians hear about your great new drug and choose it because they understand yours is better than the other options, right?

"Success is increasingly reliant on the ability to make the most of all of these skills together, consistently"

Wrong. There is no one discipline more important than the others. None stands alone; one without the others is irrelevant and success is increasingly reliant on the ability to make the most of all of these skills together, consistently.

The great convergence is changing how cross-functional brand team members need to interact. It requires each function to have a far greater understanding and empathy with its cross-functional colleagues. Today every member needs to know how to use the right language and tools to relate their own skills and contribute their expertise to the team's decision making as well as challenge the thinking of the other team members.

But, despite accelerating market demand for us to work this way, I'm not sure we are making the most of working better together. Teams continue to work in silos, with outdated attitudes about the importance of roles, each thinking their area of expertise is somehow superior, and each often preferring to stay within the comfort of their specialism during team conversations

Robustly trained?

As well as the age-old superiority complex of commercial versus non-commercial, even if we had a seamlessly operating brand team, how many of those engaged in 'planning' are robustly trained in strategic marketing? Or, more importantly, how many are motivated to learn strategic marketing skills properly, recognising their importance for better cross-functional strategy development and implementation?

Most brand team members and leaders are highly educated with MDs, MBAs and PhDs, but these qualifications don't automatically offer the depth required to become excellent in using the technical skills of strategic marketing and they certainly cannot be simply learnt on the job.

Many see marketing as promotional and therefore incompatible with a serious focus on the science which supports the case for the use of medicines. Yes, tactical marketing can be about creating brochures and ad campaigns, but I am talking about strategic marketing.

Strategic marketing is about seeing, choosing and building the commercially viable space where our brand will be accepted against other options, based on the clinical benefit it offers and its perceived value.

Strategic marketing thinking is grounded in aligning a deep understanding of why customers (government, physicians, payers, patients et al) behave the way they do, with what we offer to the market and how we offer it.

"Strategic marketers recognise all customers are different and seek to understand which motivations are more (or less) suitable for the unique aspects of the brand we've developed"

Strategic marketers recognise all customers are different and seek to understand which motivations are more (or less) suitable for the unique aspects of the brand we've developed. By understanding this, we can then develop, offer and evolve our science in the most effective way, providing a real 'reason to change'.

Strategic marketing written into non-commercial competencies

To me, great strategic marketing is best done by drawing on the different experts we have in our cross-functional teams. It isn't just a marketer's responsibility. Marketers still have a central role in coordinating the team's thinking and decision making. However, teams would work more efficiently, and brands would be more successful if all members had robust strategic marketing skills.

However, I don't believe many companies have provided the support for brand team members to learn, use and master these technical skills.

Building strategic marketing competencies into the job roles of non-marketing brand team members would have a significant impact on the teams' effectiveness and their ability to truly unlock the potential of their brands.

I'm not proposing medical, clinical, access and regulatory teams need to retrain as marketers; their specific skills are too important. However, teams would work better and brands would perform better if everyone in the brand team understood the discipline of strategic marketing as well as their own specialism and were clear on how to best contribute.

The training gap

A decade or more ago rigorous marketing training typified by Merck and Pfizer produced a generation of people who were (and are) highly skilled in strategic marketing. However, it seems this model has disappeared, and the support for this level of training has been eroded.

Training advances appear to have focused on using technology to get more from shrinking training budgets. By delivering the same training but focusing on using 'innovative' e-learning, blended learning and self-directed learning channels to look good, have trainers and companies been missing the point?

If the ambition today is to embed great strategic marketing skills across the cross-functional team, then we need a new approach. We need to change our view of training and focus not just on delivering content through relevant channels, but also on making it relevant for a different audience.

The death of marketing excellence

'Marketing excellence' is dead. The term doesn't adequately sum up what is required today: marketing excellence alienates the other vital functions and doesn't recognise the essential wider contribution to brand success.

Whether we call it brand team excellence, strategic planning excellence, or commercial excellence is yet to be decided. No-one has yet created the right terminology. It seems we are somewhere between the old world of Merck/Pfizer marketing excellence awaiting the right framework to explain what common 'excellence' skills teams must have. The right solution will build on the different roles within the team. It will ensure everyone has a level of understanding of their colleagues' expertise and contribution and will also provide the technical skills for great strategic marketing.

In increasingly difficult markets, informal or self-directed learning focused on marketers isn't enough. It doesn't give brand teams the necessary level of support to learn the deep skills they need to do strategic marketing successfully.

To really make the most of your assets and brands you need to be serious about promoting strategic marketing competencies in all your teams, in particular giving non-marketers a thorough grounding in this vital discipline.


About the author:

Michael Craig is director, Brand & Portfolio Strategy at Cello Health Consulting, a specialist in orphan indicated brands for rare diseases. Michael's ultimate passion is to get more brand teams using planning rather than just doing planning. He can be contacted at or visit

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Read more on this topic from Cello Health:

Putting marketing excellence into practice


22 December, 2014