We all follow conventions. Coffee in the morning, ties on men, noun before verb (usually), ladies order first, pass
on the left, no white after Labor Day. For better
or worse, conventions form an invisible web
around our actions and the way we think, even if
we have no idea how those conventions began
or what their original purpose or meaning was.
We are so used to most of the conventions that
guide our lives that we don’t actively think about
them at all.
And that’s fine, because our brains don’t really
need to be faced with the same exact low-value
choices over and over again every day. A mind
that doesn’t need to decide which beverage to
drink with breakfast or who should order first
now has added bandwidth for other, more useful
The trouble, of course, is that conventions
sometimes outlive their usefulness – and the
force of habit they create can be difficult to
break. We get so used to coffee for breakfast or
sweets after dinner, for example, that the habit
over whelms the voice of the doctor who just
told us to cut down on either or both.
Companies and industries and market sectors
act in the same fashion, on a grander scale. As
companies and industries and market sectors
mature, the people that lead them tend to stick
with conventions that have developed over
the years, conventions whose initial purpose
or utility may or may not even exist any more,
to the point where those conventions become
so familiar that no one questions them or even
thinks of them as conventions at all. This is
especially the case in messaging. Over time
nearly all companies and industries and market
sectors develop marketing and communication
conventions – they follow unspoken, even
unconscious, rules, everyone doing and saying
more or less the same things in the same ways.
And it shows. An anthropologist from Mars with
no knowledge of human culture or language or
technology could probably pick out all the car
ads, all the prescription drug ads, or all the beer
ads just based on all the visual and stylistic cues
common to each.
In individuals, conventions can be useful
shortcuts, as long as their underlying purpose
remains valid. But in companies, industries, and
market sectors, conventions too often descend
into a sea of similarity, where everything looks
and sounds the same.
So what to do? Marketing departments can’t
all cut out the coffee. But they can still disrupt.
Disruption is what great brands and brand
managers do. They figure out the conventions of
their market sector – the status quo. Then they
create and execute on a vision that turns those
conventions on their collective ear.
Here at my agency, TBWA\WorldHealth,
disruption is our software. The chairman of
TBWA\, Jean-Marie Dru, has been thinking
and writing about disruption – or, as we put it,
“DISRUPTION®” – for the better part of the last
quarter-century, and has placed it at the center
of the network’s corporate culture. So all of us
here are pushed to think and create disruptively.
And it has worked, over and over again.
“That’s easy for you to say, Paul,” I can hear you
thinking. “But every marketing agency has its
little buzzword philosophy. What makes this one
Fair question. And there are a few good
answers. First, disruption matches up to the
opportunity offered to us by human behavior
– by conventions. Second, disruption is simple.
It doesn’t have 1,500 steps; you don’t have to
torture your ideas into a pyramid and run them
through the shakeup lens of this and through
the blender of that to the ladder of this. Disruption, at least as practiced by TBWA, has exactly
three steps. And third, disruption arises from the
context of culture.
Let’s dig into those a bit more.
I’ve already talked about conventions. And
even a cursory review of the history of disruptive
brands shows that the biggest, most successful
examples are those that blow up conventions
– whether conventions of an industry, a market
sector, or a customer audience. One great
example is Airbnb. Airbnb has changed the way
people think about travel; going on vacation
doesn’t mean staying on the ninth floor of some
cookie-cutter hotel any more. It’s flipped a con-
vention of travel on its ear.
Second is simplicity. As practiced by TBWA,
disruption involves three steps. First, capture
and define those conventions – the conventions
of the market space in which you’ll be working.
We call this part convention hunting. What are
the dynamics of the marketplace? What are the
habits and assumptions of other companies and
brands in the space? What are the habits and
assumptions of consumers in the space? Second,
define where you want your brand to go, and
how it’ll look different from those conventions
– your vision. What do you want your brand and
its relationship with customers to look like in a
year, or five, or ten? And finally, how will you get
there? How can your brand flip those habits and
assumptions to its benefit? What has the market
missed? Can you turn a pain point that everyone
else has accepted or ignored into a gain? What
are the most important aspects of your brand,
and how can you communicate them better?
And is everything you are communicating about
the brand now really all that important?
The last bit is critical. Brands don’t become
disruptive by telling everyone about their twelve
key features. They do it by distilling their essence
down to a white-hot point of flame, instantly
recognizable, memorable, unique. And simple. In
a marketplace full of complexity and convention
and surrounded by extraneous noise, that white-hot point is disruption.
Finally, the part about the context of culture.
Great disruptions do not appear out of the clear
blue sky; they operate, as Airbnb has, in the
context of cultural trends and shifts that are
going on out in the world at large. Too many
brand managers, in all markets, have a tendency
towards tunnel vision; they forget that there’s a
world outside cars or beer or, yes, prescription
drugs, that their audiences are living in that
world, and that the real competition for share of
voice isn’t all the other car or beer or pharmaceutical drug ads, it’s the rest of the culture out
there. Which means that, in order to disrupt,
a brand must study culture first. At TBWA\ we
have a team of “culture spotters” who do this.
Taking the brands we have on the roster as a
starting point, they hunt around for interesting
trends, news stories, cultural events, and then
bring them back to the creative teams to see if
any brands might be able to lean into them, so
What might this look like in real life? Right
now there’s a trend brewing that might be
called “Wound is my weapon.” It’s manifested
in all sorts of creative and interesting ways, but
the fundamental principle is that of patients
taking pride in and celebrating, rather than
being embarrassed by, the visible components
of their medical conditions. A few years ago, a
woman named Sierra Sandison competed in and
won the Miss Idaho competition while wearing
her insulin pump. A photograph of her in a
bikini with pump attached quickly went viral,
launching a whole social media “Show Me Your
Pump” movement. Now all sorts of variations
on this theme have popped up – the “Scarred
for Life” project, breast cancer survivors walking
the runway at New York Fashion Week, and
plenty more. And all of them represent potential
opportunities for related brands, if those brands
are paying attention. Brands can just float in the
eddies of culture, tossed about by pure chance,
or they can make their own currents; if you want
to be disruptive, you have to find where the
currents are forming and learn to push them
And that’s all. Of course, anyone can keep
building brands that look like all the other
brands. In fact, that’s just what I hope you do
– it’ll make my own job easier! But if you really
want to do what your clients are paying you to
do, if you really want to cut through the banality
and show patients and physicians why your
brand matters, then cut down on the coffee, pass
on the right, and disrupt.
Disruption, explained: The theory and practice
of overturning marketing conventions.
After years of tests and speculation about new character limits on Twitter, the platform has formally announced that
the famous 140-character limit is no more.
Now, tweets can include up to 280 characters,
doubling the amount of content that can fit in
Twitter’s previous limits have made it difficult
for pharma to use the platform, due to restrictions on space for fair balance and important
safety information (ISI). An increased character count may allow pharma marketers more
freedom to use the platform while remaining
FDA-compliant. This update significantly changes the way users and marketers will engage on
Twitter was not designed to be a 140-char-
acter platform. 140 characters was an arbitrary
limit imposed by the 160-character limit of SMS
when Twitter launched in 2006. Twitter was built
to be a messaging company, and it has evolved
to become a media platform. This evolution and
the changing behavior of Twitter users means
the 140-character limit is not as necessary as it
was more than a decade ago.
Over the past few years, Twitter has slowly
softened the strict 140-character limit. Last year,
Twitter stopped counting characters in replies
and media, and it tested increasing the limit
to 10,000 characters. While the 10,000-charac-
ter test was never rolled out, it shows Twitter
is open to giving users more control over their
In Twitter’s announcement, the company said
that users with access to 280 characters contin-
ued to tweet below 140 characters most of the
time. Historically, 9 percent of tweets in English
hit the 140 character limit. In the 280-character
tests, only 1 percent of tweets hit the limit. Ac-
cording to Twitter, “This shows that more space
makes it easier for people to fit thoughts in a
tweet, so they could say what they want to say,
and send tweets faster than before.”
In addition, users and brands that tweeted
more than 140 characters received more en-
gagement (likes, retweets, @mentions) and
gained more followers compared to their tweets
Many brands outside of pharma have already
started to take advantage of the new feature.
News organizations such as ABC News (@
ABC) are able to tweet longer quotes from sources and richer synopses for stories. Delta Airlines
(@Delta) and NASA’s Goddard Space Center (@
NASAGoddard) used their extra space to create
pictures with emojis in tweets. JetBlue Airways
(@JetBlue) has included more detailed flight information and support into their responses to
This update allows brands to focus more on
the content of their messages than the limitations.
The increase to 280 characters creates new
opportunities for pharma marketers.
• More relevant search results. In the past,
users who wanted to post more than 140 characters had to rely on one of a few workarounds.
Popular methods include uploading an image of
text or using “tweetstorms,” a style of tweeting
that breaks up one large message into shorter, successive tweets. Neither of these workarounds allow Twitter or search engines to index
the messages properly, so tweets using these
workarounds were often not surfaced in search
results. Marketers leveraging this new feature
may see a boost in the number of impressions
on their tweets, since tweets can now include
context to be more meaningful, and the message will be indexed in its entirety.
• Better classification and organization
through hashtags. Hashtags allow brands to
annotate their tweets with relevant keywords.
These tags are searchable and aggregate similar content for users. With more space to add
tags, brands can share messages and add any
relevant tags, expanding the reach for those
tweets. Brands should be wary of spamming
hashtags that aren’t applicable to the tweet, but
the added room should be especially helpful for
any event or conference tweets with multiple
• More robust customer service. Pharma
brands should definitely consider jumping on
board with Twitter customer service. Many companies often talk about the concepts of “beyond
the pill,” “customer-centricity,” and “customer
experience.” Twitter has made it easier to bring
these concepts to life. Seventy-seven percent
of people are likely to recommend a brand following a personalized customer service interaction on Twitter. Social customer service should
no longer be ignored. Recent updates allow for
custom welcome messages and user prompts
in direct messages, direct-message buttons in
tweets so users can more easily start conversations with brands, and customer service profiles to give brands the chance to put faces and
names to individuals responding on behalf of
the brand. More characters also allow brands
to create more human and helpful responses,
without requiring a redirect to another website
or using short, robotic messages.
• Extra real estate for fair balance. The FDA’s
draft guidance on character-constrained messaging only allowed for messages that provided
a less than optimal user experience. Now, brands
can use all 280 characters for any sponsorship
disclaimers or fair balance. Unlike previous tests
that truncated long tweets after 140 characters,
this update will allow all 280 characters to be
seen in a user’s feed.
Brands that are unable to fit all the elements
of full product promotion into 280 characters
should still avoid using Twitter for branded messaging. The increase in characters is helpful, but
does not guarantee that there is room for compliant messaging for every treatment.
The FDA guidance allows for a product’s benefit in character-constrained messaging, so long
as it includes all of the following six elements.
• Brand name
• Generic name and/or active ingredients
• Non-misleading indication statement
• All contraindications (other than mere hy-
persensitivity to the active ingredients) and
• Abbreviated risk statement
• Link to full risk information (and additional
elements required of a product promotion, such
as dosage form and quantitative ingredient in-
When in doubt, it’s helpful to reference this
advice from the guidance: “If a firm concludes
that adequate benefit and risk information,
as well as other required information, cannot
all be communicated within the same charac-
ter-space-limited communication, then the firm
should reconsider using that platform for the
intended promotional message.”
Marketers should not rely on the cover image
or profile picture to account for important safe-
ty information, since these images can be small
and illegible on mobile devices.
Alternatives to full product promotion include reminder-formatted tweets on branded channels, where the indication is never
mentioned, or unbranded, disease-awareness
tweets on unbranded channels.
The increase from 140 to 280 characters provides an opportunity for many pharma brands
to expand their interactions with users while
remaining compliant in this highly regulated
This update may be particularly helpful for
disease awareness, customer support, or corporate pharma assets with a branded component.
Brand name and indication should still never
be seen together in tweets without proper fair
More freedom does not mean that every
pharma brand should now be on Twitter, but
marketers may now be able to participate in a
space that’s historically been hostile for the industry.
Twitter’s new character limit means more
freedom for pharma marketers