Drugstore.com hunts supermoms

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In an estimated $30 million campaign breaking March 26, Drugstore.com sends its old ad theme to the showers and puts its new icon in the tub.

The leading e-tailer of prescription drugs and personal care items drops the white-suited team of people who race around a home replenishing supplies such as Bayer aspirin and Preparation H. Instead, it makes a supermom in a bathtub the new recurring symbol.

In the three spots, the mother who's chosen to live her life in the tub meets with co-workers, holds a cocktail party and interacts with her daughters. As she runs her busy life, Drugstore.com allows her to easily get what she needs.

The tagline: "A very healthy way to shop."

The spot TV and radio effort, from Fallon McElligott, Minneapolis, breaks in eight major markets during the Academy Awards telecast. Fallon won the account in September after McCann-Erickson Worldwide, Seattle, launched the brand in June.

FAMILY BUYER

The spots target head-of-household women, known as gatekepeers because they make purchase decisions for the entire family.

"We're building this company around women," said Erik Moris, Drugstore.com's senior director of communications.

The marketer's campaign last fall featured a woman in a bathtub who benefited from the clandestine deliveries of the white-suited team. Mr. Moris said Drugstore.com opted to expand on the bathtub image this time because of its special appeal to women, who view baths "as a refuge, a symbol of nurturing."

In contrast, he said: "Men don't take baths. They take showers."

Drugstore.com's investors also have taken a bath. Company stock has recently traded at an all-time low, and some industry observers are skeptical of the category's long-term viability.

Drugstore.com continues to pour money into ads and marketing despite significant losses since the site went live in February 1999. It spent $28.5 million on ads during the year ended Jan. 2 -- almost as much as its $34.8 million in revenue. It lost $115.8 million for the year.

`NEVER MADE SENSE'

"The (online) drugstore category is one that has never made sense to me because there is a Walgreen's, a Rite Aid, a Safeway within one minute of driving time of most residences in the United States," said Andy Halliday, the former VP and general manager of Excite@Home's e-commerce division who writes a column for E-commerce-news.com, an online publication. Rite Aid is a major investor in Drugstore.com.

Drugstore.com has been able to generate significant traffic. The site had 723,913 unique visitors in February, more than every competitor except wal-mart.com with 808,958, according to Nielsen/NetRatings. But some observers said money-losing promotions are the main reason the site has such a healthy traffic flow.

"They've been able to generate a relatively significant market giving stuff away," said Cameron Meierhofer, an analyst with PC Data Online.

REPEAT USERS ARE KEY

Still, Drugstore.com's Mr. Moris said his company's prognosis is good, largely because figures show 44% of customers are repeat users, meaning there is a degree of customer satisfaction. He also cited the easy-to-remember URL as a boon.

Besides the ad campaign, other marketing initiatives include a deal to serve on Amazon.com (Drugstore.com's largest shareholder) as the link for healthcare items plus a soon-to-be-announced program to reach new mothers, who may appreciate the site's convenience. The site also recently launched a Natural Store section.

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