I AM THE BRAND – The antidote for deteriorating brand handlers

In branding  lies an opportunity for the leaders to get through the fence and into the game by ensuring that all actions of employees take fall in line with the organization’s strategy. 

By Justine P. Castellon

This is not my usual article, but since I needed to respond to those who send private messages in my Facebook account regarding my careless remarks on calling someone a “hospital drug peddler”, I might as well give you a tour on the brand-customer-relations management of drug companies. While the majority may find my remarks funny, there are some whom I may have offended.  To them I offer my sincere apologies.

The evolution of the new breed of MedReps – the hospital drug peddler.
side-bar5First, allow me to draw a line between the professional medical representatives (MedReps) to these hospital drug peddlers.  You can spot the latter loitering around hospital corridors and taking the seats designed and made for patients while waiting for their doctors.  They are usually clad in T-shirt with their drug brands (yes those you’ve mistaken as ice cream vendors – Starbucks and Loose Leaf Tea Shop baristas are more professional to look at ) chattering non-stop on who will be voted out next in reality TV shows while waiting for the doctors to sign their call cards, or for the lucky ones, they carry a Tab or iPad  – similar to FedEx or UPS (except that FedEx/UPS guys are better looking and smarter).  Have you ever wondered what those signatures are for? Only heaven knows – maybe the sales managers get to judge who among the doctors got the finest handwriting or signatures at the end of the day! Alright I hear you clearly,  I know your next question leads to this : “why doctors comply with this pharmacieutical fetish?” They will be rewarded with cheap ink-deficit ballpens or colourful plastic bottle opener with reminders of the drugs’ brand names. Huh?!  And the drug samples? Of course, I haven’t forgotten those small things packed individually for product trials.  Those items still exist but are being distributed elsewhere. During school PTA meetings unlock  your razor sharp senses and you will see a parent or two playing hero and donating items for kid’s activity goodie bags.  Yes, those are the vitamins or cough syrup in small-half-filled bottles labelled “NOT FOR SALE. FOR SAMPLING ONLY”. Your next guess is right, the parent works as secretary of one of the doctors, or the hospital drug peddler himself. At least, those sample items end up at the hands of their right target market.

The tale of the hospital drug peddler and his new hospital key decision maker
 If you happen to lose your way in dimmer corridors within the hospital vicinity and you suddenly see a light shining like the Star of Bethlehem, you won’t be needing your Google map to tell you that you have reached the purchasing department territory.  Don’t be surprised to see these peddlers bribing their way to the “heart and soul” of the hospital purchasing clerks and their minions with boxes of Enseymada or Mamon.  (Goldilocks bakeshop may want to consider developing ad materials catering to this segment ). Yes doctor, you got a lousy cheap pen (worth P2.00) while the messenger who was tasked to deliver the P.O. (purchasing order) from one department to another gets a better share of the deal – well, the trips abroad is another thing though. Drug companies in their greed for bigger bucks missed the obvious – that customers are not the doctors or hospital purchasers . . . the real customers are the patients and their families. These doctors and purchasers with their cronies are just middlemen. Now you wonder how come medicines are very expensive.  Sometimes I resort to generic drugs despite the claims of some multinational companies that gaw-gaw lang sya (starch) . . . well you can always count on the placebo effect if ever.

Where are the pure breed of Professional MedReps?
Not long ago, they don’t want to be called MedReps (they sugar coat it with names like Product Associate, Business Development and the likes).  They failed to recognized the MedRep or medical representative is a highly regarded and specialized product and marketing unit catering to different kind of marketing promotions, thus the term “medical”. It’s been a while since my last encounter with the professional MedReps. In recent memory, it was  during the dotcom era.  I remember the people from Eli Lilly Philippines who visited the doctors in their well-tailored business suits and well-polished shoes.  I never forget the way  Ms. Vilma Neri (Training Director) during one of my visit reprimanding and reminding one MedRep not to fold his shirt sleeves and lecturing about proper detailing of drug usage to medical practitioners. In the 60’s (with their bulky medicine bags), they’re highly respected to the point that they’re almost equal to the doctors.  They sought an appointment first so they can have a proper discussion with the doctors. Well today, there are no longer sleeves to fold nor is there any effort to deliver the right message to the right audience.  Besides, hospital purchasing units often over-rule the doctors by simply saying stocks are not available (hmmmm….Enseymada or Mamon will surely sustain its market share). They don’t even go out of their way to ask for an appointment first.  As soon as the doctors finish their usual rounds, they’re like bunch of prep schoolers falling in line waiting for their turn with their folders and cheap pens. They get the doctors signature and hurry back to purchasing department.  Yes, a few good men classified as professional MedReps still exist, however, they too are at the mercy of the new veto power that purchasing personnel discovered for themselves. Hence, they too resort to buying boxes of Enseymada.

The used-to-be-good-frontliners are drowning in a black hole called poor leadership
My question lies to the drug companies, is this the kind of business practice you would like your brand to be associated with? To the customers, is this the kind of brand you would like to engage with? Remember, the brand is being extended to the same companies with licence to distribute by the principal owners with the ultimate trust that his brand is being executed properly. It is sad that regional managers can’t see that all the time or they simply turn a blind eye just to get the sales.  The human resources manager just washes his hands by saying, it is the job of the sales manager to ensure the behaviour of his team members. The old school sales manager resorts to barking, harassing and buzz-killing, while the brand manager is busy making certain that his cheap ballpens and his branding T-shirt are being implemented by all means (even if this is degrading and makes those peddlers look silly).  No wonder, they lost their self-esteem along the way, hence, they’re more comfortable dealing with the purchasing clerks with their ensaymada than having intellectual discussions with the doctors.  Stop yapping for a while and get your fat asses off your stinking swivelling chairs and find out how your people behave in the market place. More often, they were forced to behave that way because of your poor leadership or lack of it.

Leaders should break through the fence to get in the game
In branding  lies an opportunity for HR to get through the fence and into the game by helping ensure that all actions of employees take fall in line with the organization’s strategy. The CEOs are the “keeper of the brand” and should have a powerful emotional attachment to their brand. This will spike up their leadership competencies. I was never an employee of Eli Lilly during the 90s and early 2000s but I was part of a family who worked for them. Alfonso Zulueta, the company’s CEO that time magnified his good leadership even outside the company’s premises. It extended to the center of wellbeing of each employee – their families. He never campaigned for his outstanding qualities, he simply did his job and gave what was expected of him as a leader.  Even some doctors can attest that during those times, Eli Lilly’s employees are the prototype of professional medical representatives.  It can be seen in the way they dressed up smartly, they way they deliver the product detailing, and their relationships with their co-workers. Understanding the business and emotional importance of the brand was well delivered by the CEO and being able to link the role and mission of the each employees’ function to the brand strategy.  The CEO no longer  finds himself trying to break through a fence to get in the game – it was automatic response for each professional medrep – I AM THE BRAND. A brand culture was created where every employee and leader in the organization thinks and act on the idea that “I am the brand.” It was their core activity to ensure brand loyalty among its customers. Seven years after my last usage of Eli Lilly products ( I am thankful I don’t have to use any of their products again), as a consumer, I still remember the wonderful experience I have with the people behind the brand, and I will remain the brand advocate of Eli Lilly.

The hospital drug peddlers behaving like bunch of monkeys in the hospital grounds are the evolution of poor MedReps breeding as results of greed and poor leadership of drug companies. Because of their greediness to deliver sales, they failed to align the behaviour of frontline employees with their brand. They fell short in delivering the lines of the copy in their advertising. They overlooked the notion that brand promise is delivered by people. They buried the brand values, hence, they accidentally bred a new and inferior batch of MedRep prototypes.


POST SCRIPT – You might be wondering what happened to the Eli Lilly professional MedReps in the 90s?  I still see them now leading their own respective teams in different multinational companies around the globe, some put up their own businesses. They’re replicating the best leadership practices learned from a true leader.  For the unlucky ones, they were victims of wrong leadership after leaving Eli Lilly, hence some may have been regarded as hospital drug peddler these days.

The author writes based on her experience as a customer, a constant visitor of hospitals, a mother trying to keep her promise to attend PTA meetings, and a patient with no patience for these undisciplined drug peddlers.  She now works as consultant and brand strategist for some ethical drug distribution companies. Additional note, Eli Lilly is not a client of the author, thus, her good reviews and observation on the brand mentioned in this article are purely based on her first-hand experiences with the brand and its handlers.  The author apologizes to some brand managers whom she offended on her observation on the new uniform of MedReps – yes, they can be mistaken as supermarket merchandising staff or ice cream vendors from Selecta. Branding recall isn’t merely a visual activity.  It is the overall interaction and engagement of the brand with the target audience.

ACKNOWLEDMENT:  photos were taken from Art.Com (Jennifer Garant’s whimsical “Wine Peddler”), Freedigitalphotos.Net, accjournal.com (for Alfonso Zulueta’s photo)

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