Brand Building

Pharma and Freakonomics: An Rx for Change?

A competitive hot dog eater. David Lee Roth. A Nigerian e-mail scammer. King Solomon. Stories about these and other colorful figures can be found throughout Think Like a Freak. According to the book’s authors, the individuals have shown qualities of being a Freak.

Don’t know what a Freak is?

If not, you didn’t get caught up in the phenomenon of “Freakonomics” when the book was released in 2005. A pair of economists wrote a pop-science book that explored new considerations around some tough societal problems and blended concepts from statistics, sociology, psychology, and, of course, economics. The secret sauce, however, was the real-life stories and scenarios of sumo wrestlers, crack dealers, and real estate agents that drove a framework for understanding modern economics. These individuals were deemed as Freaks by the authors. Why? Well, they demonstrated how a “Freakconomist” approaches challenges with a unique perspective that continually seeks meaningful answers by viewing problems in a new light in which data-driven results overcome preconceptions.

And now, after the sale of four million books, a documentary, and a follow-up book, the authors have decided to give YOU the tools you need to think like a Freak as well!

In their third book, Think Like a Freak, the authors return with a similar formula–highly entertaining stories driving loosely defined concepts to help you to be a Freak by approaching problems and challenges with new angles and perspectives to come up with more meaningful solutions.

It’s cheeky. It’s fun. It’s all over the place. And were the authors able to follow through on their promise to get me to think like a Freak myself? Yeah. Well, not really.

But there are a number of nuggets that I think are relevant to us as pharma digital marketers. Here are the top ones – the three ways you can think like a Freak:

1). The three hardest words in the world to say are “I don’t know.” But doing so can create magnificent opportunities.
If you can’t admit what you don’t know, it’s virtually impossible to learn what you need to. Yet we so infrequently do admit it because, the authors posit, the cost of being wrong is actually greater to the individual than the cost of saying “I don’t know.” Our own reputation—not wanting to look stupid or over matched — is more important to protect than the greater good. Instead, we come up solutions and approaches that are based on beliefs, assumptions, and opinions.

But addressing challenges by admitting not knowing can lead to meaningful outcomes. The best example of this is market research. Say you have a new app you want to launch. You bring in a bunch of the right targets into a research setting, you observe their interactions with a beta of the app, and have a robust session where the feedback is off the charts. You KNOW you’re in good shape to have an impact. But a Freak would still say, “I don’t know.” Specifically, in this instance, “I don’t know how the targets will interact with this app in their real lives outside of a market research facility.” Armed with this information, a Freak would then take steps to try to address this area and perhaps have the targets take the app with them for a week or two and return with their feedback and reactions.

2). If you ask the wrong question, you’re sure to get the wrong answer.
A Japanese competitive eater didn’t ask, “How do I eat more hot dogs?” Instead, he asked a different question: “How do I make hot dogs easier to eat?” By redefining the problem, he discovered a new set of solutions—and shattered the world record for the most hot dogs eaten (53 ¾ in 12 minutes).

 In healthcare, physicians frequently ask their patients, “So, have you been taking your medication?” Instead, a simple change in wording could generate much more meaningful and actionable feedback from the patient: “So, what challenges have you experienced when you take your medication?” The physician is essentially asking the same thing, but the second approach is far less threatening, letting the patient know, “Hey, I know taking medication exactly as prescribed isn’t easy. I don’t expect you to be perfect. So let’s hear what’s going on.” This creates a much more inviting environment for opportunity for open dialogue and to unearth real challenges.

3). Thinking like a child can open up a world of new perspectives.
Children are pretty much unbiased and continually curious. They come to the table with no preconceptions, and they’re not afraid to share crazy ideas.

The authors point out that a starting point is the tackling of small problems rather than big ones. They recount the story of three economists in China who, instead of trying to fix the nation’s school systems, focused on a much smaller challenge. They theorized that there was a correlation between students categorized as problem readers and those having suboptimal eyesight. They provided free glasses to just over 500 children in China who couldn’t afford them and had a control group of similar children who didn’t receive the corrective eyewear. After wearing their glasses for a year, the newly bespectacled students learned between 25 and 50 percent more than their peers without corrective lenses.

How can you channel your inner child by thinking small? Take social media, for example. Marketers often shoot themselves in the foot when they try to sell in robust programs with elaborate two-way dialogue mechanisms staffed by a team of community managers and new med/legal review policies. Instead, try a very deliberate approach. Have the end vision in mind but have success be defined by small wins. For example, launching a Facebook page, even without being able to accept comments, can play an important role. It helps the organizational leadership get comfortable with the idea of being in social media and the moving parts and pieces that are involved in such an endeavor. Once they realize the world hasn’t come to an end (And, hey! We even have some likes!), you can start easing into the next phase. By addressing a smaller challenge rather than gunning for the nirvana end solution, you’re deliberately leading the organization to a place where they’ll invariably be more comfortable. Then unveil the next phase. Trust me: We’ve seen this crawl/walk/run/fly approach work time and again.



There are lots of fascinating vignettes for healthcare marketers to sink their teeth into. Take the Australian gastro who injected himself with a high dose of H. pylori to prove his theory that stomach ulcers were caused by this bacteria and not by stress and diet. Truly a Freak. And there are a number of stories with a marketing angle as well. Why do Nigerian e-mail scammers continually use the same come-on? It’s an effort to get their core target audience to self-select—if you’re gullible enough to fall for this decade-old scam, you’re exactly the target they want to focus their resources on.

Think Like a Freak was an enjoyable read, but is my Freak flag flying after reading this one? Not really. The book contains lots of examples of folks who demonstrate this nebulous quality, but the authors present no concrete blueprint for Freakdom. However, Thinking Like a Freak reminds us that we need to continually challenge the status quo and take risks in asking tough questions–even if it puts us out of our comfort zone. There are true benefits to be realized.

After all, who wouldn’t want to emulate a champion hot dog eater?

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Mickey Lynch
Mickey has focused exclusively on digital communications programs for life sciences companies for the last 18 years. ​On Cadient’s Commercial Strategy & Innovation team, Mickey collaborates closely with brand teams and other stakeholders to embrace business objectives and to proactively develop creative and innovative recommendations for meeting these goals. ​ Mickey has an MBA in Marketing from Temple University and a BA in Communications from Loyola University Maryland.

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