Communicating Without a Communications Leader

by Marnie Hoolahan, May 2022

Many of our clients are emerging companies striving towards their first clinical development program in anticipation of delivering on a promise to the patients they hope to serve. In most of these companies, leadership is appropriately focused on advancing the science and developing a “reason to believe” for both internal and external stakeholders (investigators, potential partners, investors, current and future employees, etc.).

However, and especially in earlier-stage companies, we have observed that in their enthusiasm for driving these critical areas, leadership may bypass the process for establishing consistency and coordination of communication, both inside and outside the organization. The resulting mixed messaging can be detrimental to the understanding of asset(s) in development and the company brand overall.

With that in mind, I share three known — but often forgotten — reminders for stronger communication:

1. Speak in a Single, Consistent, Organizational Voice

Without question, people occupying different roles in the organization will find different ways to speak about the products in development and/or the organization overall. This is both the beauty and complexity of cross-disciplinary teams. Whether it’s the words used to describe the asset, the disease state, the competitive set, the patient population that will benefit, or something else, a lack of consistency can lead to confusion, wasted time, lost credibility, and worst case, an erosion of trust.

Spending time with the internal team to identify and create the early communication lexicon that will guide the internal and external messaging is a valuable exercise, especially when done in a facilitated workshop session, as we often do with our clients. This effort is supported by internal and external interviews (KOLs, investors, patients) and secondary research within the therapeutic space, providing an objective, 360-degree perspective.

Overall, our goal is to translate these data and insights into a lexicon that will help shape the fundamental messages and the language used to describe the company, the asset, and the market. The messages help team members remain consistent, regardless of where they may sit within the organization or with whom and under what circumstances they are communicating.

This work precedes and informs a formal scientific platform exercise that occurs when preliminary data is available. A scientific platform evolves over time as human and clinical data provide additional clarity on the core, data-supported, scientific communications and consistent messages.

2. Pay Attention to Positioning

I remember way back in my Marketing 101 course in college, “positioning” can be defined as “…the place that a brand occupies in the minds of the customers and how it is distinguished from the products of the competitors…”

Consider the differences between Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. Both are high-quality grocery stores (with a fair amount of customer overlap). But their positioning is very different: Trader Joe’s is the store for exotic and different products, reasonable pricing, and a sense of fun adventure. Whole Foods emphasizes an organic, high-end, customer needs-oriented experience. Both companies work to support their respective position with data, customer feedback, and consistent offerings.

Likewise, in our industry, positioning helps investors, physicians, future payers, patients, etc., understand how to think about a therapy, how it is different from others, and why it is important for them. Early in an asset’s clinical trajectory, there is an opportunity to preliminarily position that asset and its potential therapeutic application in the treatment of a disease relative to alternative therapies. Yes, there is a risk of securing a position that the data does not ultimately support. But painting the picture of where you expect the product to be based on the unmet needs and corresponding development strategy guides the plan.

This is one of the many reasons why it’s essential that companies proactively and deliberately set the stage early on regarding what they aspire for their products and that they do so after completing a Target Product Profile (TPP) and a competitive landscape assessment with their cross-functional team.

Effective positioning also helps align your team around a common vision,thereby influencing trial design, how and whom you hire, where studies are conducted, and more. It provides a fixed point that everyone can work towards.

3. Keep It Simple

Back when I was in business school (Babson, 1997 — Go Beavers!), Warren Buffet came to speak. Among other things, he made a distinction between investing in biotech stocks and investing in Coca-Cola. He explained that while he didn’t understand the science of biotech, he drank Coke and appreciated why others did too. His message was simple: “Never invest in a business you cannot understand.”

The science underlying our industry can be incredibly complicated. And while many people understand it and even revel in its complexity and sophistication, these same individuals are constantly processing and deeply immersed in significant amounts of data. For those who are not, if your message is too difficult to follow — even if it’s differentiated and accurate — you will lose the opportunity to make an impact.

Ensuring that your messaging is clear, straightforward, and not overly complicated will increase the likelihood that it is understood and embraced.

Final Thoughts

Earlier-stage companies have a lot of priorities to manage — strategy across the science, internal bandwidth, company milestones, financing, and the development of the asset itself. As it should be, the focus is on clinical development and the path forward toward growth. It’s no surprise, then, that communication is often left to evolve on its own.

But confusion and inconsistency can be damaging to both the overall company brand and the product’s ultimate success when it reaches the market. Internal alignment, coordination, and well-thought-out messaging go a long way towards keeping things on track.


Posted in All Categories, Decision-Making and Process