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Back-to-'Biogen' shift signals wider industry branding trend

Biogen's ($BIIB) recent change back to its original name - from the decade-old merger name Biogen Idec - made sense in many ways. Along with the nod to its biotech founding heritage, most people already called the company simply "Biogen," anyway.

But the switch to just Biogen also signaled a new direction for the company and recognized the new reality in pharma. Companies can no longer rely on one or two blockbuster drugs and product messaging to attract attention with consumers, physicians and investors. Pharmas today are working at building corporate marketing platforms that tell a broader brand story.

"At the product level, pharma companies are very experienced at building brands. At the corporate level, they're mostly traditional communications folks who have more of a reporting function than a brand building function," Paul Shrimpf, associate partner at brand strategy firm Prophet, told FiercePharmaMarketing. "That's the evolution. It's becoming more strategic versus reactions and reports."

In Biogen's case, the announcement of the new/old name and new logo was accompanied by the news that it is also broadening its scope beyond the multiple sclerosis treatments for which it is best known, to include Alzheimer's and ALS treatments in progress.

As CEO George Scangos told Reuters, "If the Alzheimer's thing works, then we're not just an MS company. We are broadly focused on neuro-degenerative diseases."

There are similar scenes playing out across pharma. It's what AbbVie ($ABBV) did after it was spun out as the pharmaceutical arm of Abbott Labs ($ABT), said Jeff Smith, a partner at Prophet. Known primarily for its anti-inflammatory blockbuster Humira, AbbVie wasn't getting credit for its pipeline, which included drugs in oncology.

Using the core strength of Humira - or in Biogen's case, MS drugs - pharmas can "expand the frame of reference" of their brand, Smith said. At the physician level, for example, a doctor may be familiar with the specific drug, and believe that the product works and that the maker is an expert in that therapy area. From that position of expertise and trust, companies can begin to weave a bigger story of the brand and platform.

Expect more of the these kinds of moves, the Prophet executives said, in part because it's a smart strategic decision, but also because it's necessary in the new marketplace. Under the old model, pharmas just needed to come up with a blockbuster drug, get to market first with patents and then generate as much revenue as possible to prop up the company research pipeline. That doesn't work anymore--and it didn't really behoove pharmas which, rightly or wrongly, acquired reputations for high prices and gouging.

"The (negative) perception got to the point where it was better to have the products and corporate separate. Now with the shift, pharmas do have a big need to shed those perceptions and move into a space where they're seen as respected providers in healthcare," Shrimpf said.

The other reason corporate branding is growing in pharma is because of the growth in digital and social media. With rules and regulations - and sometimes self-imposed restraints - pharmas can find it more difficult to market a specific drug on social media. Marketing the larger brand platform and lifestyle message is less fraught with potential missteps.

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