June 3, 2019

Reflecting on the Past to Power Brighter Futures

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Year after year, you think it can't possibly be happening again already, but the five original and eight revised calendar invites don't lie: it's time for brand planning! There's pre-work, there's panic, there's probably PowerPoint. And before you've had the chance to confirm your availability, you're randomly placed in a small group of putative thought partners with whom you must share the conference room and sometimes a single Sharpie. Joining forces with Elaine from Accounting, you've got a few hours and a blank whiteboard to answer some not-exactly-simple questions, like: How should we go to market? How can we change doctors' minds? How should we change people's lives?

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Here's another big question:

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What if there was a better way? At Syneos Health Communications, we think there is.

We've gathered points of view, experiences, and intel from more than a dozen seasoned marketing leaders from across our Syneos Health Communications network of experts. Here, we're aiming to illuminate the flaws of the brand planning status quo, rethink what's missing, and unpack how the chaptered brand planning approach from Syneos Health Communications structurally redefines better and best. We've designed our chaptered 2020 Brand Planning approach from the ground up to elevate the experience and outputs, and ultimately make the whole process (relatively) easy. That way, brands can be conscious about what they're deciding to leave behind as they pursue the areas of reflection—and decision—most important to them.

Section I: STATUS QUO

The 3 Deadly Sins of Brand Planning

Brand planning sessions frequently assume the form of wide-open, unstructured discussions. Maybe it's because they're often perceived as a table-stakes tactic. Maybe it's because it can be hard to know where to start. Regardless, trying to brainstorm without a conducive, inspiring framework limits your reflection: to your own personal experience, or to what your company has done before. Defaulting to such narrow thinking never answers the big questions. Yet, year in, year out, the most well-meaning attendees fall victim to brand planning's deadly sins—the most common traps that can make those hours in the conference room, at the end of it all, feel futile.

Deadly Sin #1: Writing Murky Strategic Imperatives

Frequently, a brand's strategic imperatives are so generic, or impenetrable, that people don't have an inkling how to work toward them (and let's face it: no amount of dissemination or brow-beating can drive vague imperatives home). Perhaps the imperatives haven't changed in years, or maybe they're so broad that it's practically impossible to get from imperative to tactic. You're told to own markets; optimize growth; promote access; support success; maybe do something on social media. The brand strategists have to peel back layers and layers and spell things out just for people to know what they're supposed to be doing there. Once specific, actionable imperatives are established, they can help structure all subsequent ideation, ensuring that all propositions ladder up to—and advance—the brand's goals.

That being the case, every brand thinker should be able to both think through the lens of strategic imperatives and, at the same time, table them when needed. A customer-centric viewpoint is key, and strategic imperatives, being relatively abstract, can take a thinker far outside of the customer's shoes.

Deadly Sin #2: Internal Misalignment

When and how often does a given team need to confer with senior leadership, and at what level? Some people will ideate all the way through to specific tactics before going to leadership—at which point they'll be turned down—whereas other people will check in with leadership every two weeks and never gain any momentum. So, mutually established touchpoints and key decision makers are critical.

In addition, from the get-go, a number of voices, if invited to brand planning, can help ensure smooth alignment. Frustratingly, a number of must-have voices in brand planning aren't brought in till just after the fact. Most notably, the medical regulatory and engagement experts are frequently left out until after, say, the brand strategists and account lead have joined forces and ideated to completion, and only then will they find out how their proposals are unviable or otherwise miss the mark.

Deadly Sin #3: Rigid Fidelity to a Pre-Defined Process

All too often, the extant process is driven by the need to get to certain unexamined milestones—especially at bigger companies. We've all seen it: there are five pre-defined steps, each demanding that a familiar template gets filled out. And even if participants can provide answers, what if the questions are wrong? While they were likely relevant in one session back in some quarter of yore, they hardly speak to the brand's challenges today. They just don't allow for the kind of thinking that's going to yield new, better solutions for the future.

One note: pre-defined processes are not an evil unto themselves; they may make perfect sense if a brand has and values its particular planning protocol. But even then, a capable agency should work with and optimize that protocol in order to achieve the brand's favored milestones while, at the same time, drive innovative thinking from the perspective of the customer. This point of view is far more likely to produce high-yield, lasting results, while the conventional ways are going to bar them from tremendous opportunity. Veering off the established path can take brands to some incredibly rich new territory.

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