Digital marketing case study: MSD Belgium

Better known in Europe as MSD (Merck Sharp & Dohme) and worldwide as Merck, our client is a Fortune 500 pharmaceutical company reputed for their innovation and research. MSD Belgium commissioned graphility to improve their digital marketing. We helped the company raise its standards and reach new heights.

The brief

The first line of business for a pharmaceutical company are the doctors. Still digging in its traditions, account managers meet doctors in person. While MSD Belgium has continued to work with account managers, they also focus on digital marketing, and email marketing in particular. Doctors subscribe to newsletters to stay informed about medicine updates, availability, and dedicated events. With a market penetration of 80% (2011), MSD Belgium was interested to grow even further.

  • Working on medicinal email campaigns is more challenging than promoting commercial products, owing to the stringent regulations in place for the industry. Navigating difficult copy and legal validations is one of graphility’s strengths, as our agency has worked for other such sectors like financial, insurance, and academia.
  • email layouts were very professional but a bit dry to read. They needed a design revolution: fresh copy and new layouts.
  • The company wanted to improve its existing statistics, with an open rate averaging 19% and a conversion rate of 3%.

The digital marketing strategy of MSD Belgium was 80% email marketing, with the remaining 20% reserved for workshops, events, and webinars. Doctors learn about events via email campaigns and landing pages where they register to participate. Hence, email was MSD Belgium’s main channel, with every promotion dependent on emails only. Our design director Hector Hurtado joined the team to work mostly on email marketing campaigns. He was responsible of design and coding, and further coached the product teams with copywriting and project management. Another notable team member was Philippe Vanhoolandt from Figes, responsible for segmentation and data analytics.

graphility steps in

In 2011, MSD Belgium ranked 5th in Mercks European Top 10. We concluded our mission at the end of 2013, after placing them on the first spot in Europe. This raised the bars! New standards for analytics became 23% for open rate, and 4.8% for conversion rate. While the open rate sometimes exploded to as high as 57%, the lowest usually remained within 21% — better than the previous standard nonetheless. The conversion rate climbed to as high as 12% on occasions. MSD Belgium reached the pole position in a little bit more than a year, and remained at this spot until the end of our mission. So it was very stable.

Improved readability through information architecture

Hector completely revisited the look & feel, and the copy style of the emails. Navigating through the strict legal feedbacks, he introduced a new flavor of voice and tone pertaining to our original advertising nature. Little by little, he reached a compromise with the legal team of what he could do to improve the campaigns. His idea was to improve email readability by adding a touch of empathy. Empathy is at the core of experience design. We wanted to do just that and not keep the emails monotonous or dull.

Hector experimented with typography and hierarchy. He increased the headers and body generously while reducing footnotes and legal mentions. This gave the copy a less corporate look, and a more humane touch. Sources and statistics were necessary, yet rather than “polluting” the text with numbers, we alternatively chose to show them in footnotes. Indeed, they provided the required information while improving readability and aesthetics. A footnote may not be ideal, but considering what was there before, it was the better option. Having a clean sentence on top of the email with all the technical details at the bottom was both user-friendly yet informative.


Design underwent a comprehensive change. In the past, the email structure looked very corporate. Our Design director redesigned the email layouts. Previously, the emails showed the logo of the company, some text and a green button with the CTA. It was a very simple email. We wanted to add a touch of emotion to them. The MSD brand always had to be there, along with the particular brand per medication. Apart from these pre-determined features, we tried different tactics to add sentiment to the emails.

For example, the dermatology team wanted an email campaign for medicines that were good for kids. Hector decided to add pictures in the headers of the emails that appealed to the target group. It altered the complete appearance of the emails. We wanted to tell a story through them and these are the emails that shot up the open rates. Thus with soaring numbers, we also agreed upon more liberties in design and copy with the client. We got the chance to showcase our creativity! Sometimes the emails also represented a full image in the entire page, making it quite attractive for the readers.

We were delivering keeping in mind that all the rules were followed. At the same time, we also incorporated our own creativity, as nowhere was it mentioned that we could not add pictures, or change the hierarchy in typography. Hence we were still following the guidelines, but we added more elements and reordered them to make it look more agreeable. While respecting the branding palette, Hector decided to change the CTA color to the main color of the branded medicine. Some of these were quite bold, which in turn helped increase the visibility of the button. This proved very successful. Since the guidelines were always respected there was no objection from the legal team on the emails being more pleasant than before.

In the past, the emails had a large corporate header at the top, followed by the name of the product, the body text, and finally the CTA at the bottom. This also meant that the CTA was always at the end of the email. Hector decided to put the CTA towards the beginning following a natural reading pattern so that people see it right from the start. The layout was, of course, subject to change but the basic format remained.

The inclusion of prominent images along with type and template changes appealed to the reader’s emotion and provided the information needed at the same time. Lastly, the emails were crafted with different devices in mind. The idea was to make them look good on desktops, tablets, and mobiles. Thus the pictures chosen were edited with a lot of precaution and aesthetics in mind. The layout design was kept rather flat, but the CTA button had an embossed look. Our data showed that was working best with our readers hence we decided to go ahead with it. This was a precursor to the semi-flat movement.


In the past, not every email was responsive, so our work improved them on that regard. In code, this meant putting some serious effort for compatibility with different devices and email applications.

MSD Belgium used Lyris as their mailing platform. One week after Hector would launch the campaigns, Philippe would compute the statistics. Based on early insights, we would decide to relaunch the email as is or redesign its layout and messaging to improve it before sending again. This hands-on iterative approach reaped obvious benefits, as mentioned earlier.

Project management, the other half of digital marketing

Hector is a leader at heart, so he helped the team with planning and follow up of the campaigns. graphility introduced continuous improvement through Kanban. Hector maintained a backlog of every team’s marketing campaigns.

Furthermore, he prepared a template to receive a more structured brief from account managers. The teams had to define the measure of success, hence this brief proved very useful to reach intended metrics beyond the simple open and click rates.

Kanban is great with small processes that repeat over time, it is easy to get a feel of the velocity needed for a card to go through the board — also called card cycle time. When the expected velocity is not achieved, problems are identified and discussed with the teams. If a task cannot be easily unblocked, then the allotted slot is canceled and given to another card in the queue. Hence, we helped bring about a round-robin scheduling process and made the whole operation more efficient.

Improve your digital marketing today

graphility’s collaboration with MSD Belgium lasted for 2 years. Our targets were achieved in a little over a year, and MSD Belgium continued to maintain its first spot in Europe at the end of our mission.

Lastly, important to this case study is to note our way of working. graphility excels both in project management and creative direction: setting up a delivery life cycle while providing unique solutions that respect the most stringent regulatory guidelines. To this end, we arrive at our conclusions with extensive design experience and knowledge to provide our clients with our best creative solution. We are experts and stand by our work, so contact us and let’s co-create the best interest for your brand.

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