The Boehringer Ingelheim approach to digital – Part 3: Be the first

Candice O'Sullivan
October 18, 2012

This is Part 3 of a five-part series exploring how Boehringer Ingelheim and its Director of Digital Communications, John Pugh, are leading the pharma industry’s shift into the digital space.

If you are a keen observer of the digital pharma landscape, you would not have been able to avoid all the industry rhetoric of late regarding the release of pharma’s ‘first full social game’, Syrum – courtesy of Boehringer Ingelheim.

Syrum is not Boehringer’s first attempt at introducing game mechanics into its marketing programs. Gaming has featured in a number of their brand-specific or disease awareness campaigns, including Drive4COPD, One Mission One Million and Healthseeker. But Syrum is what has really got social media advocates talking. Initially born from a desire to make a more interesting Facebook page, Syrum has been described as pharma’s equivalent of Farmville. But what is the aim of Syrum? And should other companies be following in Boehringer’s footsteps?

It’s relatively easy to understand how gaming can help improve health behaviours. There is nothing new about using fun and rewards to engage individuals in a task they may ordinarily consider boring or to motivate appropriate behaviour. These concepts are easily extendable to the goals we commonly associate with medical education and patient adherence programs. But Syrum is not about inducing lifestyle modification or building disease awareness or monitoring treatment. Rather, it asks individuals to pretend they are a pharma company, to go through the process of creating a drug and thereby accrue enough points to save the world.

So will Syrum change the face of pharma marketing? No, but were Boehringer really expecting it to? Again, no. Boehringer would have invested in Syrum for some or all of the following reasons:

  • To be first at something, since this always makes for brilliant PR. And Syrum probably represents the longest denouement in pharma marketing history; this little gem was being talked about years before its official release (literally)
  • To experiment and learn more about gamification so that they could better incorporate game mechanics into their other marketing programs
  • To further build their corporate brand and its association with innovation and leadership in the digital space (and all the related benefits of this, such as talent recruitment and retention)
  • And finally, because John Pugh obviously knows how to sell an idea internally and get buy-in.

While I’m a blatant fan of many aspects of Boehringer’s social media strategy, most days I regard Syrum as an expensive little toy for a big kid (aka John Pugh). When I’m feeling more magnanimous, I view it as a unique PR stunt that no competitor can emulate; there just ain’t room in the world for two of these things. But what I do appreciate is how Syrum has raised the profile of gamification in pharma and got brand managers thinking about game mechanics and how they might add value to their marketing strategy and tactics. After all, if you agree that all marketing comes down to principles of psychology and behaviour change, then gamification should probably form part of your marketing armamentarium.

Subscribe to our blog to receive each new post in the Boehringer series direct to your inbox. If you’re interested in understanding what social media strategies are achievable in the Australian pharma industry, we have published the key take-outs from our recent pharma seminar with social media expert Danny Phillips here.

By Candice O’Sullivan, Director and Head of Strategy at Wellmark. You can find Candice on Google+ at +Candice O’Sullivan.

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