2021 is the year of the vaccine – and the year of vaccine branding. Never before has there been such high consumer awareness of vaccine brands.

For Jim DeLash, Director of Multi-Channel Marketing at GlaxoSmithKline, the challenge is somewhat different. His role is in business-to-business, marketing vaccines to healthcare practitioners. GSK doesn’t currently have a COVID vaccine in the marketplace, but the pandemic has nonetheless affected B2B pharma profoundly, causing changes to the channel mix – with face-to-face visits between reps and healthcare practitioners (HCPs) greatly reduced – and having other knock-on effects that may never revert back to pre-pandemic practice. In this interview, for WARC’s Spotlight US series, DeLash discusses the current state of B2B vaccine marketing, and its possible future, with WARC Commissioning Editor US Cathy Taylor.

This article is part of the May 2021 Spotlight US series, "How the pandemic has changed US healthcare marketing." Read more

WARC: Does it surprise you that consumers are so aware of what brand of COVID vaccine they're getting?

Jim DeLash: I'm glad they are because branding matters across the board, and it certainly matters to us in vaccines. When we're marketing, we’re marketing brand against brand, the same as any other category, so, one of the challenges we've had internally is, at times, people think our products are the same as the competitors, when there are differences. I think the awareness of COVID vaccine brands can help us in marketing vaccines. It helps increase awareness. It's up to us to create the brand.

In healthcare professional marketing, it's a very confined universe. We know who the doctors are. There are only so many doctors in the country, or pharmacists, who can vaccinate. Healthcare professionals who can vaccinate, who see patients that meet our patient profile of a certain age or whatever, are a much more limited number, which is good in a way. We know we can be very focused on who to talk to, and then who to create the brand with, or the demand.

For WARC’s global customers, what are the differences in B2B pharma marketing in the US compared to other countries?

I'm on a team right now that's evaluating marketing channels globally. There's people representing different parts of the world, and we're creating this playbook. Many of the channels you use to reach customers are the same. We have print, digital, mobile, email. The difference though, comes back to data. In the US, we'll know exactly what open rates are, what effect it had on buying behavior, if you can accumulate total impact of a campaign on a segment. In the rest of the world, they don't have all that data, so their measurement is much more challenging.

Is that a regulatory issue?

It's all in how each country manages their flow of information. In the US, we've been fortunate that we have access to a lot of information. Most of it, we look at on an aggregate level. We try to figure out the trends of where that leads to buying behavior change or not. They've been much more cautious with data in the rest of the world. And it makes it much more challenging. You're looking for correlations, not really being able to find cause and effect.

Can you extrapolate any of the US data to help those other markets?

We've done that in the past, mainly with things like testing, where we'll say, "We're going to increase the frequency of our messages." And I used to do sessions with the global team, “top 10 things we learned this year in testing.” Frequency was a good one, because we could just say, look, “Whatever frequency you're doing now, you could probably double it without any negative effect.”

You're trying to influence buying behavior, and I think that's true, no matter where. There are nuances but I think a core element is how often do you need to talk to somebody? How do you mix the channels up? How do you segment customers differently? Based on maybe limited data, how can you still segment them and then invest at different levels? It's not perfect, but I think it's better than not having anything.

How has the pandemic affected how you market B2B, aside from anything to do with the virus itself?

In our world, especially in vaccines, there's been a lot of best of times and worst of times. When it hit about a year ago – all the well visits to doctors’ offices went way down, so that means fewer vaccinations. This is a case where telehealth couldn't really help us. Not only that, then the sales reps couldn't get in to see the physicians either. All of that brought us to, "Okay, how are we going to learn from this?” One of the things we accelerated in my group was use of trigger-based communication. It took a while to build up the methodology and develop the algorithms. We looked at things like – maybe a rep shouldn't go in to see a physician until the physician has taken some sort of action, or there's some other trigger that would lead to that. Maybe purchase patterns have changed. A doctor responded to some multi-channel marketing stimuli, something else that would say, “Okay, alert the rep,” or the other way around – rep talks to the doctor, that triggers a bunch of other digital communications. We were developing those things before and we needed to accelerate that, given the circumstances. When you have a sales force, they contribute a lot, but there's only so much reach they can have. Now we have to create a better experience for physicians, including how we use our resources.

How does the shift to more digital and virtual affect how you meet objectives now?

It brings them together. We look at the face-to-face, at tele-sales, at digital, at print. They're all channels through which we can communicate and try to create these memorable experiences, and it doesn't matter to me how much of each of these channels we use; it's whatever is the best experience. We've had a separation of the sales force and marketing for a long time, and we started to recognize these are part of the same experience for a customer. You start coming up with ideas on how we can use the creative that we've developed in the most appropriate ways.

Do you see any data at this point about what physicians prefer as people are more willing to go to the doctor's office and their offices are actually open?

I don't recall any. I'm preparing a talk later in this spring on creating memorable experiences. And I’m calling one of the chapters, "The other 90%." When you do something, and you say, "Hey, I got 10% of the people to be affected by this,” but there's still 90% that weren't affected by that. How are we going to get a response from them? They're not all the same. The other 90% is not a homogeneous group. They’re splintered among segments, so I'm going to create hypotheses such as – these guys are interested in in clinical data; these guys are interested in patient stories and so on. Now I've got four or five groups of 10% each of the market. I've still got 50% that I can't figure out, but I don't think you ever get to 100%.

Do you have an example of a memorable experience where you feel you really hit the mark?

Meningitis B is a very deadly disease for older adolescents. Some even die from it, lose limbs; it's very, very distressing. Fortunately, it's fairly rare. But the effects can be seen within 24 hours, so we wanted to send emails over a 24-hour period showing the progression, changing the tone of the message being from the individual to the parent of the individual – you know, "Beth is not responding now.” And that did okay. But a few weeks later, we sent a sixth email to those who had responded to one of the first five, showing what Beth's life was like now. She survived, but she had consequences. The response to that one was 13 times greater than what we normally see.

I'd like to think if we look back on that a year from now, we'd feel it's very rudimentary, that in the future that would show itself in multiple channels, triggered a rep visit, follow up other ways through other case studies and so on.

How do B2B and B2C connect in terms of vaccine marketing?

I think pharma in general has gotten away from patient education material in the offices. There used to always be these pamphlets in there – “Everything you need to know about arthritis,” – or asthma, or whatever. Maybe it's because it's online so much now, but I think that's where the connecting spot is going to be. We did some predictive models where we looked at what we call “high-value actions” on our websites. One had some high-value actions that were post-patient visit. And that had to do with patient education material – that if we got more traffic, got more information there, it would drive more future business. So, I think that's where things are going to come together, where – as we see informed patients coming to the office – we figure out how can we broker that conversation.

Coming out of the pandemic, what behaviors are not going back to "normal"?

Any changes we're making now are for the long run. I've a significant belief in the importance of creative. We've increased our emphasis on creative, that's not going to change; along with that is the mix of creative and media. Some creative messages are better in certain channels than others – how do we make that work? We're accelerating use of modeling, predictive models, statistical regression. We're doing some behavioral economics work that is going to be really important to try to trigger these emotional responses.

How do you measure performance? And how has that changed during the pandemic?

We do the things that you might guess – KPIs, leading indicators, lag, ultimately effect on sales. It's challenging in the vaccine business because one doctors’ office will buy the same vaccine, where, if we're marketing prescriptions for asthma, every doctor in the practice might be writing something different. But that's not a pandemic thing; we use market mix models to see the effect, the same as we've always done it. We use media planning models to measure, based on its effect, what we should be spending next year. We go hot and cold on testing and on experimentation, meaning something is very heavily emphasized, and then we pull back, and then we go back to it. I think we can learn a lot from cumulative effects of marketing. The opening of one email by a physician, in an account of 10 other physicians, doesn't mean much on its own, so you have to look at that from the standpoint of, “we marketed to these 10 physicians in an account; collectively they took these actions.”

It's a true B2B decision. You're asking an office to make a purchase, just like any other kind of office supply. It's just like a regular business in that regard.

What is your approach to brand differentiation?

We are limited in what we can say about our products based on what's in our label, of course, and that's the same for the competitors. Unless you have head-to-head data from a trial, you can't do comparisons, and I'm okay with that. I think you extol the benefits of your product, and you don't worry about what the competition's doing. You can try to provide other services like patient information that make it a better experience for the physicians that can help differentiate you on non-product attributes. It's easier to do from a compliance, legal/regulatory review standpoint, but harder to do to create them in the first place. You have to be really cautious and at times, it's frustrating, but understandable. It's what we have to do.

What are the top learnings that you would convey about B2B right now, and B2B pharma in particular?

I think there are many micro-segments within an audience, and that if you try to treat a segment – let's say a segment of heavy purchasers – as one homogeneous group, that's a mistake. It's worth splitting them into smaller groups based on some information that means you should talk to them or invest in them or do something differently. I think we make mistakes in going too broad to an audience.

And tied to that is the creative. People can undervalue the importance of the creative message to elicit an emotional reaction. Whether it's a copier, or a vaccine, or whatever it is, you can still get an emotional connection, so think about the creative way to get that emotional connection with an audience.

The final one is the analysis, the interpretation, and really understanding the insight of what's driving the behavior. We all talk about how much data everybody has, yet it's a surface level- analysis. Some of the analytics and metrics we use today are the same that we used 10 or 20 years ago.

Let me understand better about what makes a one-time buyer into a multi-time buyer. What drives that? If it doesn't happen in the first three months after the initial purchase, does that mean lifetime value is going to be much lower? Really understanding the buyer's behavior, or what causes somebody to leave, are just things I don't think we pay quite enough attention to or staff enough. Even with all the automated tools, there's a lot of insight there to be had that’s left on the table.