The Boehringer Ingelheim approach to digital – Part 1: If in doubt, go to Iceland

Candice O'Sullivan
September 18, 2012

This is Part 1 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.

John Pugh describes himself on LinkedIn as a social media evangelist. His professional title, Director of Digital Communications, is no less impressive given he works in the pharmaceutical industry – a highly regulated industry that often functions in a regulatory vacuum when it comes to digital media.

Under Pugh’s leadership, Boehringer Ingelheim, one of the world’s top 20 pharmaceutical companies, has spearheaded a growing list of boundary-pushing initiatives. It’s hard to identify another pharma company that comes close to Boehringer in the digital stakes. Indeed, most pharma companies have taken an extreme, conservative position on using social media and digital channels for marketing. So what is it about Boehringer that’s different? Maybe it just comes down to having someone like John Pugh leading your team.

With a background as a journalist and Internet start-up entrepreneur, I’d say Pugh has the right mix of assets for someone in control of a drug company’s global social media strategy. It’s my bet that he checks his facts, only uses reliable sources, knows when to read between the lines and takes educated and informed risks. He probably concentrates more on outcomes than process and therefore knows when to break rules – but not for the sake of being rebellious. I would also guess that, just like his (albeit fictional) pals over at The Newsroom, he’s a huge idealist. How else would you explain the aim of Boehringer‘s latest social game, Syrum: to develop drugs to save ‘the health of the world’? Or indeed Boehringer‘s stated reason for using digital media in the first place: ‘to improve global health’.

So what exactly does Boehringer have that you want? Put simply, a coherent communication and branding strategy implemented across all social media channels including Facebook, Twitter, flickr and YouTube. From online crowdsourcing to gamification to digital self-management dashboards, this pharma company’s got it going on.

How did Pugh get his digital agenda off the ground? In what will surely become pharma folklore, Pugh invited a select group of self-fulfilling futurists, extraordinarily successful online entrepreneurs and digital experts (plus the mandatory bigpharma bigwigs) to Iceland to lift the lid on the future – what it might look like and, more importantly, what Boehringer would need to look like to lead in an industry where few else were taking the time to imagine what could be. It’s inspiring stuff: a pharma company with the foresight to predict the future and the guts to live that future today.

Am I overstating things? Perhaps. But I’ll try my best to convince you otherwise as I explore exactly what Boehringer, Pugh and his merry men have achieved, and what the lessons for the rest of us might be, in my next few posts.

Subscribe to our blog to receive each new post in the Boehringer series direct to your inbox. In the meantime, if you’re interested in understanding what social media strategies are achievable in the Australian pharma industry, join us at our next breakfast seminar featuring social media expert, Danny Phillips. Full details 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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