'The pharma industry needs an absolute mind shift. They have to think FMCG and act pharma' : McCann strategy director Manjunath Hegde

Manjunath Hegde, masters in marketing management from Jamnalal Bajaj Institute, has over 23 years of experience in 360 brand management and consumer insight based strategy and creative. Over the years he has worked on some of the best brands - P&G, Unilever, Infosys, Taj Hotels, Lakme, ICICI, United Brewries, Marico, Zee TV, CRY. He is also associated with agencies such as Ambience Publicis, Leo Burnett and Bates Clarion.

Hegde has also spent a couple of years in Dubai as COO, Liwa Advertising, restructuring the agency to global standards and getting business worth millions during the peak of recession. He also co-founded the brand consultancy firm ‘Chlorophyll‘.

Hegde is presently McCann strategy director, specifically focusing on the pharmaceutical industry.

In an interview with‘s Anindita Sarkar, Hegde talks about the various advertising and marketing challenges that the pharma industry faces today.


Unlike yesteryears, today there is a lot of brand communication talk happening within the pharma industry. Why this shift? 

Until now pharma companies had not found a need for real brand management. But they are slowly waking up to the need. And this is because pharma companies have recognised that there is a need for multiple touch points to contact its various stakeholders - patients, chemists, doctors, relatives - for a range of categories as the market in ever expanding and is hugely competitive.

You have been involved in branding at various levels. How similar or different is brand building in the pharma industry?

The brand building process of a pharma product is very challenging. The principles of brand building will always remain the same; it‘s the manner of executing them that change when it comes to the pharma category.

Look, for example, it is quite easy for the FMCG advertisers to create brands because they have access to the mass media. But when it comes to the pharma industry, there are media and legal restrictions; you need to take care of your audience and the key influencer, which is the doctor. Because, in this case, you cannot reach out to the consumer directly by foregoing the doctor.

So, what is the communication challenge of an OTC product?

See, an OTC product can be divided into two categories. The first kind is one which can be purchased across the counter and, therefore, can be advertised like cough syrups. The second category is where by repeat purchase (self medication), the product steadily falls into the OTC bracket again. And in both these categories, it is a must for the products to build an image of their own. The brand communication has to create space in the consumers‘ life; it has to be an experience by itself. It cannot behave indifferently. Only then will the brand be recognized by the consumer. And this is the communication challenge in this category.

How do you deal with the branding strategy of a pharma product as against any other category?

In the pharma industry, unlike an FMCG product which talks to masses or for that matter any other category, we are dealing with problems that are related to health issues. So, here you are talking to someone who is ill and while your audience is that one affected person, the relatives and family members also become an important audience. Also, here the communication has to be done with the key influencer or the qualified influencer, which is the doctor. And in addition to this, there are also the strict government rules which one needs to adhere to. So the category advertising by itself is extremely challenging and the treatment is very different. Here the product has to go beyond the regular talking about what it will do as a drug and rather become a part of the affected consumer through a new life changing story.

For example, if it is a product that is made for diabetic patients, then it should talk about the healthy lifestyle approach that one needs to take if affected. It has to show support and concern. Only then will it become a part of the patient‘s life.

What is the primary difference between promoting an OTC brand versus a general brand?

In an OTC brand, you talk to the consumer directly. But for non-OTC, you cannot use mass media; you are not allowed to. These brands have to be prescribed by a doctor. So in this case, the communication is directed towards the doctor.

Also, most brands decide not to go OTC (and sometimes they cannot go because its ingredient based) because it is a different ball game altogether. The media spends are higher, the exposure to competition is on a severe basis; it‘s a large market now and totally volume based. So it‘s largely a pull versus push strategy wherein you make the consumers come and ask for it. Whereas, when it comes to non-OTC, it is only a push and push strategy. The companies push it down to the doctors and then the doctors push it to the consumers.  

‘A larger trend is moving towards the wellness category - it is a huge market out there. So there is a huge growth opportunity in this segment.‘

So many times is it a conscious decision to go non-OTC? 

Absolutely. Many times it happens that brands have become OTC by default. And this means that at some point of time they were prescription based, but gradually the consumer has moved to buy the product on his own through repeated purchase. Now, one could take a decision to go OTC but in that case, it may lose out on the prescribed category because the doctor will now stop prescribing that medicine.

The doctor has to and should refer a non-OTC brand and, therefore, companies who are pharma strong will give a window to the doctors.

In a category like this where you cannot advertise through mass media, what are the primary marketing platforms? 

In this category there is a need to be present so that you are seen and can touch consumer life in areas where you can meet them. These could be jogging parks, treadmill companies, doctor‘s clinics, conferences and forums. The brands have to talk about their own essence, and say, "I am there."

Also, the pharma industry needs an absolute mind shift. They have to think FMCG and act pharma. This means they have to look into the product from the consumer‘s point of view.

Is there alternative medicine market in India (like ayurvedic products, etc.)? Is there a fair consumer tilt towards these?

Today consumers are becoming more and more health conscious and, thus, there is a trend wherein people are moving towards organic and non-toxic products, courtesy the internet. A larger trend is moving towards the precaution and wellness category - it is a huge market out there. So there is a huge growth opportunity in the wellness category.

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