Byravee Iyer
Mar 30, 2015

Pharma meets FMCG at GSK

THE FACE BEHIND THE BRAND: GSK’s Asia marketing director Helen Forsyth encourages acceptance of Western medicine with a media-neutral approach.

Forsyth: Understanding the consumer is the most important objective
Forsyth: Understanding the consumer is the most important objective

Pharmaceutical companies are not known for consumer marketing, but that is changing as GSK attempts to transition into a consumer healthcare manufacturer, marrying up the best of pharma capabilities with FMCG.

“Our marketing strategy is absolutely synergistic with any fast-moving consumer healthcare company,” says Helen Forsyth, marketing director of GSK Consumer Healthcare Asia. Forsyth leads the charge from Malaysia, overseeing four categories: wellness or OTC; skin health; nutrition; and oral care. 

Her remit covers nine Asian markets including Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Philippines, Singapore and Indonesia. She manages a direct team of four category managers, an insights team, artwork team, expert marketers and digital managers. In addition to that, local teams have a dotted line relationship with their local general managers and Forsyth. 

Within the portfolio Forsyth oversees, Panadol is the biggest brand in terms of sales, followed by Sensodyne and Physiogel. Forsyth says all nine markets operate individual P&L statements and as such adopt different strategies depending on growth agendas and the portfolio of products. However, the company is heavily committed to Panadol, which accounts for the lion’s share of marketing spend. That’s because people are reluctant to reach for an OTC tablet due to concerns over perceived side effects, Forsyth says. This is a pan-Asian phenomenon but especially pronounced in Malaysia, Taiwan and Singapore — markets that account for a significant chunk of the brand’s sales. Additionally, GSK has only recently launched the brands in emerging markets such as the Philippines and Thailand. 

Forsyth sees a growth challenge in the skin and oral health categories. “We need to accelerate growth where we don’t have penetration and we haven’t got it for Sensodyne and Physiogel.”

To achieve that, GSK spends about 20 per cent of sales on marketing those brands, as opposed to 10 per cent to 15 per cent on major scalable business such as Panadol. 

GSK’s interest in Asia comes as several companies, including GSK’s own pain management and nutrition division, AstraZeneca, Bayer and Pfizer, have moved international headquarters to the region. According to Ogilvy CommonHealth Worldwide’s chairman and CEO Matt Giegerich, Asia is in the sweet spot of global trends. In China, there’s a massive aging population that is moving from rural to urban areas to get the highest standard of care. Inside of that, aided by increased access to information, there has been a big shift in spending: from acute conditions to chronic ones. “As the population ages and they have more access to care, we’re seeing more treatment of chronic diseases and the prevention of these,” Giegerich said. “That’s where communication really helps.”

Overall, consumer marketing accounts for 65 per cent of adspend. Expert marketing including sampling represents 20 per cent, while shopper marketing makes up 15 per cent. Within this, GSK is driving a digital transformation and has more than doubled investment to 10 per cent of working media. Forsyth is quick to add that she does not look at digital as a cure-all. “It is not a top-down mandate of everything for every campaign.” 

The British national describes her approach as media-neutral, adding that she would like to focus on understanding the consumer and where they interact with the brand. Forsyth and her team decide on marketing spend using analytics and econometrics to determine where they have been successful in the past. “Ideally we start with an open mind.”


  • 2011 Area marketing director, Asia, GSK
  • 2007 Global brand director, Sensodyne (GSK)
  • 2005 UK marketing manager, oral care, GSK


  • 2010 Worked as a GSK Pulse volunteer with the Malaria Consortium in Cambodia

Forsyth started her career at Danone’s dairy unit in the UK, a company she says has similar values and contributed to her joining GSK. Now after 16 years at GSK, one would take Forsyth to be a fixture. 

Having worked on the global Sensodyne brand, she took the Asia role three years ago as a development opportunity, she says, to translate the global skills she acquired into a regional role. Forsyth started work on oral care and nutrition and was recently promoted to head up four consumer categories. She chooses to be based in Malaysia because it is GSK’s largest market in Asia and for its proximity to the Panadol factory. 

 “I’d already interacted with a lot of the markets in Asia, but coming here was all the more important to build relationships and trust with the team.”

Her knowledge of global strategy and understanding of the local consumer has helped drive results. A single campaign rolled out to numerous markets doesn’t deliver the best return, she notes. 

Forsyth is particularly proud of a recent campaign for Panadol developed to offset a 5 per cent year-on-year decline in sales in Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia. Using the global ‘Monster Mom’ theme, the regional team, tweaked the campaign to show that mothers don’t realise that when they are in pain they are not being themselves. The TV spot was accompanied by high-decibel roadshows, independent views from psychologists and celebrity testimonials on radio talk shows. After the campaign, market share rose in Malaysia; value sales grew 16.4 per cent for the advertised variant in Singapore; and Taiwan reported a drop in non-users. 

Forsyth has achieved a similar feat with Sensodyne. To counter low brand equity in Malaysia, Philippines and Thailand, the company developed a campaign to highlight the impact sensitivity has on enjoying life. Using local testimonials, the toothpaste brand has grown 10 per cent, eight times the category growth in the region, according to Nielsen. 

As digital revolutionises the slower-to-adopt pharmaceutical industry, Forsyth has spearheaded a consumer relations hub in Manila, which supports consumer phone and email queries. More importantly, the company has also set-up an “integrated listening lab” — a real-time technology system that enables it to know what consumers are saying about GSK, the brands, their product experiences and health conditions. The backroom analytics helps join the dots and put forward recommendations which feed into search and social media strategy. “Moving forward we’re looking to have real time conversations so consumers can feel more connected to us,” she says. 

She describes the company’s relationship with agencies as “very collaborative” — to the extent of WhatsApp familiarity. GSK’s consumer healthcare division works with Grey and Mindshare. “We very much see ourselves as a trio and I include them in all main strategic dialogues.”

The increased need for digital work, however, is complicating matters. Both Grey and Mindshare can contribute to digital, but Forsyth doesn’t see that as an exclusive relationship. Individual markets have different set-ups with more than half of the markets appointing specialised partners for search and content. “We are finding our way in this space. I don’t see it as a challenge provided everyone knows what their part of the jigsaw is.”

Her other big challenge is around prioritsation. Forsyth is often torn between high-growth markets, emerging middle class, exciting technology, e-commerce and digital marketing, forcing her to take stock and course correct. 

In Southeast Asia, with no clear regulatory environment, pricing and access isn’t clear cut. Forsyth isn’t too concerned. She claims GSK has built strong regulatory muscle that helps it navigate tricky regulations. As part of this, she has always maintained a close relationship with regulatory peers. This includes monthly meetings to review copies and understand commercial opportunities in the industry. “This is really critical and I can’t stress it enough.”



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