Given the fervor Apple whips up over its products, you’d think each new device contained an app for spinning straw into gold and giving foot rubs. For this reason, Apple is widely known for its marketing prowess. Businesses of all sizes and industries study Apple’s marketing successes and attempt to emulate them. And there is much to emulate.
Apple did not invent the MP3 player, smart phone, or tablet computer, yet the iPod, iPhone, and iPad have dominated their respective categories. And they have succeeded in each of these categories where many others have failed.
Let’s use the tablet computer as an example. The term “tablet” was coined by Microsoft in 2001, though the basic technology pre-dates Microsoft’s popularization of this term. The history of the tablet has been one of failure, and up until very recently, consumer adoption of tablets has been weak.
In January of 2010 Apple announced the release of its tablet computer, the iPad. Though the tablet long preceded this announcement, it was essentially a new class of device in the minds of many consumers. Yet just 28 days later, Apple had sold 1 million devices. And last quarter, which was less than 2 years from the iPad’s release, Apple sold 11.2 million iPads.
So how does Apple do it?
The Key Ingredient in Apple’s Secret Sauce
Volumes have been written on the subject of Apple’s marketing success, and you could identify many elements contributing to that success. But Apple’s secret marketing sauce has one key ingredient.
That ingredient is education.
Apple puts forth considerable effort into educating consumers, whereas most other companies do not. Consumer education can be implemented in a variety of ways, but to illustrate the power of this approach, I’ll go over 2 examples of Apple’s strategy in this area.
Making Complex Topics Accessible
When the iPod was introduced in 2001, several MP3 players were already on the market, but only early adopters and tech enthusiasts knew much about them. Had Apple marketed the iPod as an MP3 player as other companies had, they would have created minimal product awareness.
Instead, the first iPod ad featured a guy listening to music on the computer, plugging in his iPod, transferring his music from the computer to the iPod, and dancing out the door while listening to his music. This simple visual provided clarity for a concept that was too complex for the majority of consumers at that time.
Providing a Hands-On Learning Environment
When Apple announced that it would be opening brick-and-mortar stores, it was widely ridiculed by analysts. But what these analysts did not understand is that Apple was not just opening a store. It was opening a classroom.
Prospective buyers could see, touch, and experiment with Apple products before making a purchase. And they could go to the Apple store to get advanced instruction after they had purchased a product.
To be clear, marketing is never a substitute for a bad product. If Apple products were junk, Apple stores would have only served to show consumers that they were junk. But Apple has excellent products, and consumer education is a great means of showcasing that excellence.
The Need for Clinical Trials Education
Though clinical trials and drug development are far more complex concepts than something like an iPod, iPhone, or iPad, the pharmaceutical industry spends few resources on education in these areas. And the public could clearly use that education. A survey by CISCRP reported that 74% of respondents “say they have no ‘real’ knowledge of the clinical research process.”
People are already overwhelmed and anxious with regard to healthcare decisions due to the complexity of options and seriousness of the resulting consequences. Patients have far more at stake than a consumer picking out a technological device. Yet we ask them to consider an additional (unnecessary) option, which they probably understand even less than their existing options.
For patients to be open to clinical trials as a possibility, we need to expose them to information long before they come into contact with protocol-specific recruitment information.
The challenge of providing this education is that, unlike Apple products, most people will not gravitate towards clinical trials educational materials. Listening to music and playing Angry Birds on an iPad is much more naturally appealing than study participation. Clinical trials education is a challenge, and thus far, we have not risen to that challenge.
The Gamification of Healthcare
Though I’m not a huge fan of the term “gamification,” the gamification movement is an exciting trend with great implications for healthcare. Put simply, gamification is the use of game design techniques and mechanics to solve problems and engage audiences. If you want to delve deeper into this topic, check out this fascinating TED Talk video, Gaming Can Make A Better World.
A popular example of healthcare gamification is the success of Wii fitness games. And I assure you these games are no joke. A recent experience with Wii Boxing left me winded, and I was sore the following two days. But I’m happy to report that I (narrowly) won the bout.
The future of healthcare gamification is difficult to predict, but it is a future filled with exciting possibilities. In fact, a new bi-monthly peer-reviewed journal, Games for Health, is exploring exactly this topic.
Boehringer’s Upcoming Release of Syrum
Clearly, Boehringer has been watching the rise of healthcare gamification. They recently announced the upcoming release of a new Facebook game called Syrum, which will allow players to save the world by combating one disease at a time:
The overall objective is to save the world, one disease at a time, by harvesting molecules (a little like Farmville) and then using them as trading cards to play against diseases (a little like Pokemon). A player must first investigate molecular compounds at a research desk before putting them to the test in the laboratory, then conduct clinical trials and, if successful, advance a treatment to market.
To learn more about Syrum, check out this article or visit the Syrum website.
Boehringer: Reminiscent of Apple
Boehringer brand teams will use the new Syrum platform, though it has not yet determined exactly how. But this game’s greatest potential is as an educational tool.
Pharma has a bad, and often well-earned, reputation among the general public. Trust will not be regained through a game but through the old fashioned way, earning it. On the flip side, the public does not fully appreciate the difficulty and expense associated with drug development. And that’s where Syrum has great potential.
Do you remember the examples I provided about Apple’s consumer education strategy? In the examples, Apple made complex concepts accessible and provided a learning environment for consumers. That sounds very similar to what Boehringer is doing with Syrum in regard to drug development education.
Of course, this potential is predicated on people actually playing the game. Regardless of whether Syrum proves to be a success, it’s a huge step in the right direction.
New Avenues of Clinical Trials Education and Recruitment
According to publicly available information, Boehringer will primarily use Syrum for brand purposes. Though players will run clinical trials as part of the game, it’s not clear whether Boehringer intends to incorporate significant educational components into this game stage. The opportunity to do so is certainly there, however.
Boehringer’s bold and innovative thinking in this area is certainly something we could use more of in patient recruitment. Gaming is one way to deliver clinical trials education, but it’s certainly not the only way.
Though education provided Apple with an edge, education will soon become a necessity for those who want to be heard. The days of marketing campaigns composed entirely of one-way launch-and-leave campaigns are coming to a close. Consumers demand more, and they should.
Patients, in particular, will and should demand more. The epatient movement is here to stay, and it will fundamentally change healthcare. The clinical research industry needs to do a better job of providing accessible information about clinical trials as a healthcare option.
How do you think we can better engage and educate the public with regard to clinical trials? What are your thoughts on Syrum? Will it be a success? Will other pharmaceutical companies follow Boehringer’s example? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Apple Store Image Credit: Wikipedia
John Mack says
I think BI is dealing in vaporware. It’s announcement precedes the actual release of the game by at least 1 year! See my comments on Pharma Marketing Blog here: http://pharmamkting.blogspot.com/2011/10/bis-facebook-game-syrum-to-be-launched.html
Rahlyn Gossen says
Thanks for the comment. I am equally curious to see when Boehringer will actually release the game. I suspect you are correct that it will be a while, though I’m not bothered by the premature announcement. It’s become such common practice for startups and software companies to build a bit of buzz and generate feedback via product announcements for products that aren’t ready. I don’t find Boehringer’s use of this tactic inherently bothersome, but I think anything over a year would be a bit much.
One thing I hope they will correct soon is the autoplay video on the Syrum website. I am opposed to autoplay videos since they are a big annoyance for users and can drive visitors away.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts and the link. Very interesting blog post!
Rahlyn Gossen says
A nice presentation about the game was recently posted by John Pugh: