The Swift-Apple standoff – Lessons in the UCPMP era

Every single time you hear a doctor or a medical association trying to pass on its costs (travel, conference or anything else) to you, remember the Taylor Swift – Apple episode.

For those who aren’t very familiar with the episode here is a little primer. When Apple announced a promotional idea of offering a 3-month free trial period for Apple Music, it also decided to leverage its clout a little by not paying the artistes whose music it would distribute. In effect, what Apple did was ask music artistes to bear the cost of promoting Apple music! Being a company worth $700 billion, it figured it could pull it off.  What it didn’t expect was a push-back from one single artiste.

Taylor Swift, a gutsy 25-year old music star announced yesterday, via a blog-post, that she would not allow Apple to distribute her music. I am sure most people who read the post brushed it off as an arrogant attempt to take on a technology giant. Yet, late last night Apple announced that it would reverse its payment policy and not ask music artistes to bear the cost of its promotional campaign.

This episode struck me as familiar. It is strikingly similar to something pharma routinely gets from medical associations – to bear the cost of their conferences. However, Taylor Swift’s reaction to Apple’s initial proposal and Apple’s response to her fascinated me.  How it unfolded has a lot to do with bargaining power and its amplification through social media. It also is about taking a stand. I learnt some valuable lessons from this episode and could not resist comparing it to the industry I work for. A few from the top of my head are listed here – I am sure there are many more.

  • No organization can take its size for granted
  • Alternate media can amplify power and speed of outcome
  • Taking a stand is important
  • Fighting for the underdog gets you support
  • A win of this size can catapult popularity

Taylor Swift is an artist with five albums out. Sure she is popular, but contrast it with the organization she stood up to. Apple is a single company valued at almost 3/4th the sales of the entire pharmaceutical industry, an industry that allegedly ‘shapes’ the agendas of governments around the world.  A company so large and powerful took 17 hours to reverse its payment policy to music artistes. In comparison, how important and powerful do you think the doctor associations that pressurize you are?

We don’t ask you for free iPhones. Please don’t ask us to provide you with our music for no compensation” wrote Swift in her blog-post addressed to Apple. There is obviously a quid-pro-quo in the Swift- Apple relationship. But it is one between peers. Neither Swift nor Apple demeans each other. They are peers in the relationship.

Why can’t pharma have a similar relationship with doctors? Quid-pro-quo is a bad word you say? Not if it is stated upfront, it’s not. Pharma and doctors need each other – there is nothing illegal about that. Using unfair trade practices is illegal. In this example, an unfair practice would be if Swift leveraged her clout and popularity to strike a deal with Apple that promoted her music over others. She did not. She spoke for the music industry at large. The pharmaceutical industry acutely lacks this foresight and broad mindedness which explains its half-baked attempts at anything constructive.

From the point of view of enforcing this change, I doubt this would have happened if Taylor Swift had sent in a nicely typed-out letter on her letter-head (does she have one?) either directly or through her lawyers.  A simple social media broadcast immediately got her the support of millions of her fans – who incidentally are Apple’s consumers too! The transparency, the openness and the willingness to share her actions with her fans won their hearts. What is pharma so scared of? Why does it not share the same transparency, openness and willingness to share? Why the hesitation with voluntarily accepting the UCPMP to win some hearts?

Taylor Swift probably won more support for also speaking out for the underdog. “These are not the complaints of a spoiled, petulant child. These are the echoed sentiments of every artist, writer and producer in my social circles who are afraid to speak up publicly because we admire and respect Apple so much. We simply do not respect this particular call.” Very rarely does someone this popular and widely admired speak out for the underdog. Rarely does one put another person’s agenda over their own for the larger good. Where are the pharma leaders who have this popularity and credibility? Where do they stand on the UCPMP issue? Why do they not speak out in one voice to an industry that is so starved of leadership and direction?

How much do you think Taylor Swift’s popularity has grown since yesterday? And how much do you think Apple’s has by responding in the way it did? I would wager that Apple will gain a lot more from this for showing the flexibility, urgency and for respecting the sentiments of its consumers whose collective expression Taylor Swift seemed to represent. Why can the industry not engage with doctor associations to show them how much they can gain by regaining lost reputation?

Taylor Swift won praise for taking a stand. Apple won praise for showing that it cares. When will doctors and pharma do either or both?

NB: Correction: She (Taylor Swift) wasn’t the only one  (courtesy @rushwrites)

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