Marketing pharmacy as a brand and designing its future

Pharmacy has meaning but we struggle to distill and communicate it, says Gavin Birchall

Gavin Birchall, pharmacist and founder and director of DOSE Design and Marketing

Pharmacist Gavin Birchall is the founder and director of DOSE Design and Marketing

What is your background in pharmacy?

I have always been passionate about pharmacy’s contribution to the nation’s health, and have worked across the profession to understand that. I acquired my pharmacy degree from the University of Bath in 1999 and spent the first 15 years of my career as a locum pharmacist, pharmacy manager, teacher practitioner, area manager, superintendent, and operations and marketing director. I also have experience in primary care, hospital pharmacy, working on a local pharmaceutical committee and being involved in both the setup of the University of Central Lancashire School of Pharmacy and the Local Professional Network in Lancashire. I have been on the judging panel for the Chemist and Druggist awards in recent years and became a Fellow of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society in 2016.

What is design and marketing and how does it relate to the pharmacy sector?

Design is the way something works — not just the way it looks. Marketing is wider than communications — it is the science and art of exploring, creating and delivering value to satisfy customer needs at a profit. The greater marketing challenge involves working out how to do that, followed by how to communicate it. Pharmacy adds value to patients’ and people’s lives and we need to be better at communicating this value, both individually and collectively.

Design is the way something works — not just the way it looks.  Marketing is the science and art of exploring, creating and delivering value.

What influenced you to explore design and marketing?

I became fascinated by the customer experience while working as operations and marketing director at Medicx Pharmacy between 2008 and 2012. The customer experience is the end result of your marketing and influences whether customers (most commonly patients) will use your pharmacy in the future. I wanted to understand how to satisfy customers, grow sales and build loyalty. Although we managed to grow the business above national average and win a number of national awards for clinical services and pharmacy design, the profession was still perceived negatively by many stakeholders. I wanted to learn the language and techniques that would enable me to tackle this. I started researching the brand of pharmacy through a Master’s in Graphic Design at the University of Central Lancashire in 2013. It turned out to be the first research of its kind globally.

What challenges did you face when bringing design and marketing together with pharmacy?

At university, my tutors thought that researching the brand of a profession was too wide a topic. I won them over. The difference between a brand and a commodity is meaning. Pharmacy has meaning but we struggle to distill and communicate it. I think our future relies on learning to do this well. If we don’t capture and get across why we are more than a logistical function, we will remain vulnerable to being replaced. The principles of design and marketing are universal, so they apply to pharmacy just as easily as any other endeavour. Our unique funding and commissioning structures add a level of complexity but they make it interesting. The biggest challenge is convincing beleaguered pharmacy owners of the value that design and marketing can add.

I consider what I do to be a new area of pharmacy practice — one that will become more important as time goes on.

How did DOSE Design and Marketing come about and what is the vision for your company?

I reached a decision point towards the end of my research. It was clear that design and marketing techniques had the potential to change stakeholders’ opinion of pharmacy. I wanted to bring this understanding and the skills I had learnt to the profession and I felt that a specialist pharmacy design and marketing agency was the best way to do that. I combined my unique operational experiences of a director with the professional standards of a superintendent and the vision of a designer and marketer.

At DOSE I am lucky enough to work with pioneers in the industry and I’d like to keep doing that in the future. I would also like to work with our national bodies, including the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee, the National Pharmacy Association, and the Association of Pharmacy Technicians UK to brand pharmacy and position the profession for a future as bright as our past. We need to think beyond just individual pharmacy organisations and collectively think about the profession. I consider what I do to be a new area of pharmacy practice — one that will become more important as time goes on.

How important are marketing and design concepts in the pharmacy sector?

If you are interested in what your customers feel, think and do, then you cannot underestimate the importance of design and marketing. Our services are complex and highly regulated, which often dominates our thoughts on how to deliver them. We need to think about how our services meet customer needs and what customers feel and think afterwards. The same applies for all stakeholders. Society’s view of pharmacy will be influenced by their experience of each individual pharmacy, pharmacy team, service and the work of our national bodies. We are in this together. We owe it to ourselves to develop the ability to manage our brand and to cooperate to take action over decades, not months.

If you are interested in what your customers feel, think and do then you cannot underestimate the importance of design and marketing

How should pharmacists go about developing a marketing strategy?

Learn about marketing strategy. There is a body of evidence that has been building since the 1950s about what works. Educate yourself or seek guidance. Start with understanding your customer and how you can meet their needs. Move onto how to mould your businesses and services around that. Then — and only then — communicate to raise awareness. Don’t be tempted to jump straight into tactical delivery before defining your strategy. Strategy then tactics.

What advice would you give to pharmacists interested in pursuing a career like yours?

In all honesty, I am lucky that I have found something of importance and meaning — this would be the first bit of advice. Try to find a way to spend your time doing something that has purpose for you. Purpose can carry you through the hard times — that would be the second bit of advice. Expect there to be hard times and challenges, even if you manage to find your path. The courage to follow it is one of the hardest bits. It’s not guaranteed like a job. Thirdly, if your path happens to be design and marketing then invest your time, energy and money in learning from the best. Marketing is not regulated in the same way as pharmacy. There is not always a right and wrong defined by scientific research. Be ready to separate the relevant from the irrelevant and always focus on your customer.

Last updated
The Pharmaceutical Journal, February 2018;Online:DOI:10.1211/PJ.2018.20204334