In the life sciences industry, the cornerstones of a company’s value chain are well known to be R&D (where medicines are discovered and developed) and Commercialization (where medicines are marketed, sold, and accessed). Central to the success of any prescription medicine is the brand team, which generally serves as the critical “nerve center” of market impact and patient/prescriber value for any launched product. The brand teams are generally staffed with cross-functional top talent responsible for the P&L of a life science company’s key products. Unlike Amazon, which spreads its revenue across 12 million products, a large biopharmaceutical company’s top line is generally driven by a handful of products, often with sales of their leading products topping $1 billion. Needless to say, a brand team is counted on to deliver top performance in highly competitive markets – not an easy task!

On a daily basis, a brand team must make a myriad of complex and risky decisions that have a direct impact on the product’s success in the market. If things are going well, the brand team will seek to accelerate and accentuate an advantaged market position or source of differentiation. And if things are not tracking according to forecast, a brand team often faces immense pressure to dissect every element of brand performance, from insights, to strategy, to field execution, to access, and ultimately, the customer experience. Thus, the very best brand teams are expected to be constantly monitoring and enhancing brand performance, and making whatever changes are necessary (within medical/regulatory guidance) to position for continued brand success.

So, if a biopharmaceutical company is seeking to make a major change, such as bringing a digital transformation of the customer experience, all roads lead through its key brand teams in order to make such a change. Yet, even though life science brand teams make literally hundreds of changes each month in order to ensure brand success, why is it they often appear extremely cautious, and sometimes outright resistant to an organization’s efforts to making a digital transformation, whose intent is to help them deliver a better and deeper customer experience?

The answer to this conundrum, as you might expect, is multi-faceted and nuanced. Employees within high performing brand teams, may be more resistant to organizational change for five important reasons:

  1. Perceived loss of status or power: Transformation of the customer experience can mean some brand team members may feel that the changes threaten their existing expertise within the organization, or their power base, and they may resist the changes in order to maintain the status quo and their influence within the team. Digital transformation, in particular, requires significant relearning of new ways of working, and this can sometimes feel threatening to existing team dynamics. This is not unique to brand teams, but merely a reflection of normal human behavior.
  2. Fear of the unknown: Employees with high competence may feel that they have a good understanding of how things currently work within the organization, and they may be hesitant to embrace change that could disrupt their comfort level and/or the performance of their brand. This is certainly a valid risk for those brand teams who are in a market leading position. Brand teams are generally deeply intertwined with third party ad agencies who serve them. Making changes to the customer experience will require a clear view of how the change impacts each part of the brand team, and will also require explicit cooperation from its third-party partners
  3. Lack of internal evidence of success: While brand teams can often see the merit in a transformative change to the customer experience in the long term, they will often seek evidence first, from other brand teams within their own company, or from competitor brands, that the changes proposed, actually work, and have a measurable impact. Leading brand teams would often prefer that the changes start in another brand team first, before embarking on the change journey themselves.
  4. Perception of risk to P&L momentum: Even if the brand team does trust its top leaders such as the Chief Commercial Officer, who are typically supportive of the change strategy, oftentimes they are interacting with personnel who are serving as delegates for the change from groups such as Commercial and Medical Operations, where their previous experience (and corresponding level of trust) may not be as strong. This lack of trust or experience with another business unit can often manifest itself as a stated P&L risk, which no one wants to disrupt.
  5. Unable to devote enough time to “own” the change: Brand teams are often swamped with critical decision making and key meetings. And unless there’s a “burning platform” it may be difficult to vie for the time and attention required to own the changes within their brand team, and ultimately ensure success on their terms.

Some of the above reasons for resistance to changes by a brand team, will be voiced to those leading the transformation, while others will remain unstated. Transformation teams will need to “swim below the surface” to truly understand the full view of the iceberg of resistance they are facing. To improve acceptance of major changes within biopharma brand teams, it is important to approach change strategy in a thoughtful and insightful way. Here are some potential strategies to employ to help combat these 5 common types of resistance or hesitance to change:

  1. Empower, not power: Attempting to talk to brand team leaders about potential shies in their power base, will generally not turn out well. A better strategy is to help key brand team members feel empowered to govern the changes being implemented and build a sense of accountability for the changes, much like the rest of their brand responsibilities. Brand teams don’t need to “own” core technology changes, but they do need to own defining new ways of working, for example.
  2. Involve key stakeholders: Involve key stakeholders in the change process, including brand team members, cross-functional colleagues, and external partners. This can help build buy-in and ensure that the change is aligned with broader business objectives. It is imperative to have key brand team members actively involved in the change effort, including explicit accountability for success, within their goals and objectives.
  3. Link the change strategy to the brand strategy: All roads lead to brand success. Change strategies must demonstrate how they align with, amplify, and accelerate the stated brand strategies. With that said, the change team must also not sugarcoat the changes required in order to achieve the intended impact of the change.
  4. Measure both change impact and brand performance: No brand team should be asked to sign up to changes that disrupt brand P&L. If a change is worth making, it should show incremental improvements in the short-term, with positive P&L impact in the longer term. A dashboard of agreed metrics is a must to ensure the team take an evidence- based approach to the changes, with both short-term indicators and long-term metrics included.
  5. Break down the change into manageable steps: Large, complex changes can be overwhelming, so it can be helpful to break them down into smaller, more manageable steps. This can also help build momentum and demonstrate progress via quick wins. This also allows the brand team to continue to ensure brand performance, while also being involved appropriately in key change initiatives.

While often quite challenging to make transformational change within life science brand teams, if the core areas of resistance are identified upfront, and a plan is put in place to mitigate these risks, success can be both attainable and worth the effort!