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Defy Convention

Disruptive marketing takes risks to deliver brand differentiation and connect emotively with the customer

Fists punching the air Arsene Wenger is a director of disruption. The manager of Arsenal Football Club recognised a while ago that his team could not compete with other top clubs when bidding for the highest quality players. In a world dominated by significant spend, Wenger bucked the trend by placing his resources and faith in the youth market instead. The Times has referred to him as: "Some sort of magician when it comes to making talent materialise. More of a genius, not less". The Arsenal faithful, in turn, have embraced him through their almost religious mantra: "In Arsene, we trust."

When challenged about breaking the rules with the deployment of his young players, Wenger said: "Exceptional talent breaks the rules – that means they play early, they make their own rules."

What is disruptive marketing?
"Innovations disrupt convention," says Peter Fisk in his book, Marketing Genius. Disruptive marketing is about leveraging innovation to create brand value. This means taking risks to deliver true differentiation and firmly anchoring brand attributes in the minds of our customers. The premise of disruptive marketing is by no means a new phenomenon; counter-promotion, for instance, was one of its earliest forms. Disruption requires a mindset shift that allows you to see what everyone else sees but to respond differently in delivering enhanced value for the customer. It is not about doing something different, but more about making a meaningful difference.

By his own admission, starting an airline from scratch with no prior experience is Richard Branson's most innovative accomplishment. And Branson's ubiquitous Virgin brand recognised the value of building deeper and more emotive brand relationships through disrupting convention, almost from the start.

On June 10, 1986, British Airways (BA) ran a promotion to give away 5,000 seats for New York to London flights. Virgin immediately ran an advertisement saying: "It has always been Virgin's policy to encourage you to fly to London for a little as possible. So on June 10 we encourage you to fly British Airways."

The BA promotion was expensive and generated a lot of interest, however, Virgin disrupted the promotion and achieved a hefty slice of publicity at a very low cost.

Some years later, on a transatlantic flight, Branson wanted to speak to a  lady in the next aisle but found himself shackled by his seat for the duration of the journey. This inspired the introduction of stand-up bars in Virgin cabins. The concept was recently featured in the Bond movie Quantum of Solace.

Ensuring a pivotal moment
Do pharma marketers need to embrace "disruption" as a means of building competitive advantage? It seems much effort is rightly expended on the creation of insightful brand strategy that feeds into the development of a set of promotional interventions. Impactful execution of these interventions generally results in a "moment of truth", ie that instant when the brand firmly connects with the customer. These pivotal moments have the power to build perceptions that ultimately shape the destiny of our brands.

Traditional marketing mix activities remain the mainstay of most brand operational plans. Direct mail as a promotional channel, for example, still forms a prominent part of brand operational armouries. Admittedly, creativity has improved significantly, however, many customers I have spoken to view this form of promotion as an interruption and not a true disruption. Does the sheer volume of mailings generated indicate that we are adhering to what we feel is the right thing to do versus embracing the concept of risk? Do we really have an appreciation of how our customers would like to engage with us?

I would contend that a degree of marketing lethargy and stagnation is setting in with many marketing practices adhering to convention and reinforcing customer perceptions rather than challenging and reshaping them. The major primary care markets are largely satisfied and rational differences are being eroded away. Customers expect more, and so to build stronger brand engagement and deeper customer relationships, companies must act now. Achieving this within the confines of the Code is understandably testing the creative inhibitions of most marketers, but as a group, we need to hold our creative nerve. Like it or not, the need to create engaging and increasingly compelling marketing propositions is becoming more pronounced.

Daring to disrupt
In promotionally sensitive yet largely satisfied market places, disrupting convention may help to create and strengthen brand differentiation in the minds of our customers. Dove's "True beauty" campaign is a powerful example of what disruptive marketing can achieve in establishing new brand benchmarks. Dove astutely challenged perceptions of what true beauty represents by replacing the norm of wafer-thin supermodels with more shapely women in their advertising. As a true counter motion, it was highly effective in creating a compelling proposition that appealed to its target demographic.

For many companies, disruptive marketing was borne from a lack of resources to implement "normal" marketing initiatives. When Starbucks opened in the 1980s, its business model centred around the concept of a passionate, engaging and knowledgeable coffee barista. This image served to positively disrupt the minds of the average American consumer and, ultimately, the market's whole belief system about what represented a truly great coffee experience.

Disruption can also create new commercial opportunities in highly competitive markets. When considering the impact of disruptive marketing practices, we could learn a lot from our counterparts in the fashion industry. The fashion industry is one characterised by intense competition, copy-cat products and shorter product lifecycles. Sound familiar? Zara, the retail fashion house, is renowned for some product lifecycles that are as short as eight weeks. However, brands within the fashion world have achieved success by staying relevant through different sources of inspiration, eg magazines and film. Delivering innovation can be the most effective way of making a brand proposition tangible and palpable in the eyes of the customer.

Emotional connection
Creating an emotional connection is the fundamental premise of branding and there is nothing that people bond to more than other people. So the more our brand is experienced as a person, the stronger and more meaningful the bond will become. The "Save the panda" and "Save the whale" promotional campaigns for the ACE inhibitor Tritace in the late 1990s were seminal pieces of disruptive marketing that creatively and emotively depicted patients at increased cardiovascular risk. The client and the agency took the shrewd step of disrupting stereotypical industry articulation of the "happy gardener" patient in their marketing to ultimately deliver an award winning campaign.

Stimulating disruption within a pharma setting can also provide an alternative method of creating value for the customer and the ultimate end-user, ie the patient.

AstraZeneca recently pushed the boundaries of digital innovation when it delivered a technology-based roadshow to healthcare professionals which looked at the past, present and future of asthma management. Healthcare professionals were invited to attend the SMART roadshow through a series of electronic e-blasts that directed them to an interactive microsite. The site transported them into a virtual environment that mimicked the actual roadshow. Once inside, the elements of the room included brain challenges, learning tasks and a question and answer forum.

"This was implemented in the style of the film Minority Report, to ensure it looked and felt futuristic," explains Suzie Collett, respiratory communications manager at AstraZeneca. "The feedback received is testament to the popularity and growth of digital communications. Over 1,700 customers across the UK attended the roadshow. However, we were also in electronic dialogue with over 4,000 healthcare professionals about the roadshow, and directed them to the customer microsite."

The doorway to disruption
Taking a leap of faith into disruption is something within your control that is imminently achievable, but how?
• Firstly, understand what represents current marketing 'convention' within your therapeutic area. A perceptual map including all known competitor activities will make visible the marketing interventions within your market place. As a minimum, seek to establish an understanding of the customer value attributed to your current marketing/promotional mix.
• Secondly, ask a series of challenging "why" questions, no matter how silly or trivial they may seem. This will be pivotal in creating a roadmap to success.
• Develop and road-test solutions with all vested stakeholders (internal and external). Ensure that these address the fundamental perceptual gap or unmet need from a customer standpoint.
• Deliver and believe in the intervention. Remember imperfect action is better than perfect inaction.
• Finally, measure the disruption and understand the meaningful difference made in connecting your brand proposition to your target audience.

Final analysis
The prescription for successful disruptive marketing lies in the courage to develop lateral ways of building sustainable brand engagement. When you change the way you look at things, things change the way they look. Critically, these propositions must be flawlessly executed within the brand's operational plan, with all elements of the plan working seamlessly together in a synergistic fashion.

As the ancient Chinese proverb says: "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." Taking that first step to disruption could be a defining moment that propels your brand to excellence.

The Author
Jag Singh is a brand manager at AstraZeneca
To comment on this article, email

16th February 2009


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