GSK's digital strategies for reaching new buyers in China

From suggesting Sensodyne for foods featured in TV shows to mining Alibaba data, GSK's Cindy Lau explains the pharma group's digital strategy and O2O marketing tactics.

Cindy Lau, area general manager, GSK consumer healthcare, Greater China
Cindy Lau, area general manager, GSK consumer healthcare, Greater China

GlaxoSmithKline’s third quarter report last year singled out strong growth of the Sensodyne brand in China following the launch of its Sensodyne Deep Clean product range.

Incidentally, the sensitivy toothpaste was the first brand that GSK invested in digitally when the British company shifted 30% of its media spending for consumer-healthcare products from traditional media to digital, and specifically online search, social media, ecommerce and video, in 2013. That was also the year that GSK set up its flagship store on Tmall.

In 2017, Sensodyne made several cameo appearances in food-heavy drama series Midnight Diner. Chinese viewers watching the drama series on the iQiyi player would see Sensodyne ads interposed on top of food items that tend to exacerbate sensitive teeth. A click would take them to the GSK Tmall store. GSK says almost a quarter of the sales of its oral health brands came from ecommerce.

Even though the show was unfortunately panned as an inferior adapatation of its Japanese predecessor Midnight Diner: Tokyo Series, it served as a proof of concept. Other GSK brands have also ventured into content sponsorship, including topical antibiotic ointment Bactroban’s sponsorship of The Amazing Race China which continued until its third season in 2016. The show had been renewed into its fourth season last year.

Cindy Lau, area general manager with GSK consumer healthcare in Greater China, wanted to be choosy in picking a show that was directly related to the brand, rather than just chasing TV ratings. “Oral health is a very competitive marketplace," she told Campaign Asia-Pacific. "Most of the competitors have the mass-market mindset. But Sensodyne is not a mass brand, we don’t need share of mind. We only need to reach those who have sensitive teeth and don’t know that they need to buy the product." Data from GSK suggests that the incident rate for high teeth sensitivity in China was 65%, but the peneration rate of products for this symptom was only 5.9%. Sensodyne had a slightly lower brand awareness at 70% versus the 80% enjoyed by its competitors Yunnan Baiyao and Colgate.

Digital ecosystem

Being in consumer-facing healthcare, Lau finds that digital platforms provide speed and leeway to expand on the conservative pharma landscape. Through working with Mediacom China and Alimama, the marketing services and data arm of Alibaba, GSK claims that it was able to almost double the user growth of nasal spray Flixonase by tapping into data ecosystem of the ecommerce giant at the unique ID level. In that case, MediaCom's brief was to broaden the user base of the brand from 1.3 percent of the Chinese population and to convert users from oral antihistamines to nasal ones.

“The pool of users who had purchased antihistamine pills was rather small," Lau said. "But we found out that this group of users also buy pet-related and household cleaning products on Alibaba, so we were able to identify a much bigger pool of potential users than we initially thought to push the related content to users who buy the same products. The benefit of being within a pharma company is that we have a lot of healthcare knowledge to share with consumers.”

New retail

That data partnership with Alibaba in 2016 helped GSK find new users among household health carers, who brought higher conversion rates than typical allergy medicine users, Lau said. However, some traditional partners in retail complained that GSK had invested too much on Alibaba.

“We do need to keep a good balance, and integrate online and offline so we can benefit both channels,” said Lau. Citing Flixonase again, Lau talked about the allergen monitor launched in partnership with the Moji weather app.

When the allergen index reaches a certain level that triggers allergic reactions, users of the app receive a pop-up alert that doubles as a coupon to redeem at nearby pharmacies. “Once the consumers go to the key accounts [pharmacies], we can ask them to set up an allergy corner with a pharmacist to educate the consumers on how to use the product,” said Lau. “This is a three-way win, for online and offline, and GSK gets more exposure in the pharmacies.”

Even then, certain old habits die hard. Although ecommerce and digital are driving almost every category and brand in China, Lau shared that ecommerce only constitutes about 2% of sales for pain relief and flu medications. As a result, digital spending on these two categories is also considerably lower, although GSK’s digital media spending is increasing to 38% this year.

“The consumer journey is very long from influence to purchase, so the shopper behaviour for these categories is not the same,” said Lau. “(But) we believe we are the leader in pain management, we have to change the dynamic and we’ve had a really successful experience with Sensodyne and Flexonase,” she added. Besides content collaboration with the AliHealth site, Lau said her China team is working with the APAC panadol team on getting the right content to reach consumers. Fenbid is GSK's pain relief formula sold in China. 

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