Tunnah’s musings: why pharma can learn from drumming gorillas

Paul Tunnah


If you take a look at the most successful people you know then you will probably find something they all have in common.

I’m not talking about their level of wealth, because that is only one measure of success, but instead about their diversity of experience. It’s not uncommon to find that even before their working lives, these high achievers grew up in an environment that saw them experience a variety of different cultures and experiences. Then, during their early careers, they may have tried and even failed at a number of different entrepreneurial initiatives, but learning valuable lessons along the way. Through diversity of experience, they are fast tracking themselves to success, learning lessons from the many different people they encounter and perfecting the art of failing quickly where they do fail and learning fast.

It’s something that you see reflected in the careers of many of the most senior executives within pharma too. Look at the Chief Execs of the biggest pharma companies, people like GlaxoSmithKline’s Andrew Witty, Roche’s Severin Schwan and Pfizer’s Ian Read – they have all had extensive experience of working in diverse emerging markets on the way to the top. More recently, we’re seeing pharma leaders with diverse experience from outside pharma, such as Novartis’ Joe Jimenez, who spent much of his career with Heinz.

“It’s something that you see reflected in the careers of many senior executives within pharma too.”

But this story poses a problem for pharma, an industry that prides itself on being unique and different due to the long product development cycles and high level of regulation associated with life-or-death medicines. It can make us very introverted, staying firmly inside “castle pharma” because nothing outside is deemed relevant. How many times do you hear corporate success stories from beyond our walls dismissed because “of course we could never do that in our highly regulated industry”?

And the more it’s said the more people believe it.

The reality though, is that if you stick your head above the parapet and take a look there’s a lot of stuff happening outside pharma that could be applied to what we do – and make a real difference. So maybe more of us need to start taking a peek.

By way of illustration, Chandler Chicco organised a meeting in early October looking at digital healthcare. Nothing new there surely, as there’s at least one every week, often with the same faces appearing regular as clockwork. But this time we had a speaker panel that featured a number of interesting individuals working outside healthcare and they had some fascinating points to make.

For example, all those pharma companies looking to build communities and loyalty online could do far worse than look at what the Daily Mail is doing, as James Bromley (Managing Director of the Mail Online) explained. No, I don’t mean copying the sensationalist headlines that we all know and love, but just understanding how you get people involved and build communities or digital “tribes” as they are often called. Did you know that the online version of the Mail became the second largest online news site – in the world – earlier this year?1 They must be doing something right.

“All those pharma companies looking to build communities and loyalty online could do far worse than look at what the Daily Mail is doing…”

Or what about Pranav Yadav, from new market research company Neuro Insight, who used examples of adverts (including the popular drumming gorilla with accompanying Phil Collins soundtrack from Cadbury’s UK television chocolate advert) to demonstrate how traditional metrics around message testing and key positioning statements are not as successful as we might like to think. Instead, triggering emotive responses in relation to companies or products is what really builds brand loyalty in consumers. Ethical arguments accepted about the dangers of this in prescription medicines promotion, there’s no reason why it couldn’t help pharma or healthcare organisations with public health campaigns and disease awareness (just look at some of the emotive advertising we have already about smoking cessation).

These were just two examples of a number of great presentations that raised issues and ideas that I’ve not come across within the pharma world previously. Not to mention some of the innovators in attendance who were are slightly closer to home – keep watching a company called Patients Know Best if you want to know how electronic patient records can be done successfully. There are some very smart people out there way beyond our usual circles doing stuff that could be applied to healthcare and, more specifically, pharma.

At this point I’m sure some of you are thinking at least one of the following:

“We’re heavily regulated, we can’t talk to consumers directly like that.”

“We’re a big company and we can’t move that quickly, there are processes that need to be followed.”

“We’re one of the most innovative companies within pharma anyway.”

One of more of those, and many others, may well apply. But take some time to ask yourself whether these pushbacks really stop you using techniques and ideas from outside pharma, or are they just excuses because you don’t want to break the mould or do something outside your comfort zone? Can prescription drug manufacturers really not talk to the public and patients or just not sell to them? There is a difference.

“Can prescription drug manufacturers really not talk to the public and patients or just not sell to them? There is a difference.”

At the end of the day, perhaps what holds us back sometimes is the fact that we spend too much time comparing ourselves to everyone else within our “castle pharma”, when there’s some really exciting stuff happening outside. So maybe it’s time for pharma to reset its barometer of success and start making comparisons, or even setting targets, by looking beyond those walls. Take social media as one example – Pfizer has just over 40,000 Facebook fans, Starbucks has 26 million.

It’s not to say we’re doing badly and I’m sure there is plenty that other industries could actually learn from looking at pharma. But that’s not the point – other industries are used to looking further afield for inspiration whereas it’s too easy in pharma to be dismissive of other sectors because of excuses about being “different”. But the core principles of product development, sales and marketing are universal.

Can you imagine a pharma company with the brand loyalty and passion towards it that Apple has? Why not – don’t we care as much about our health as being able to read digital newspapers on the train?

So if you do nothing else today, stick your head above that parapet and take a look at something great a company way beyond the healthcare sphere is doing. You probably won’t get your head shot off, but you might just learn something useful.


1. MarketingWeek, “Mail Online becomes second largest online newspaper”, April 2011

About the author:

Paul Tunnah is Founder and Managing Director of www.pharmaphorum.com, the dynamic online information and discussion portal for the pharmaceutical industry featuring news, articles, events / company listings and online discussion. For queries he can be reached through the site contact form or on Twitter @pharmaphorum.

Thanks to Chandler Chicco and its Pioneers in Digital Health meeting held in early October for inspiration. See www.pioneersindigitalhealth.eu for more information.

What can pharma learn from other industries?