Last year's Idea Conference offered a glimpse of a brighter future for U.S. business. Among the speakers were Rob Kalin of Etsy; Blake Mycoskie of Toms Shoes; Tom Szaky of Terra Cycle; and Eric Ryan of Method. Listening to them (which you can do at idea2009.com), it was almost possible to imagine a revival of entrepreneurialism based on profitable, sustainable companies built on big ideas, real customer needs and a socially responsible outlook.
I had the same thought at the PSFK Conference in New York, where Richard Fine spoke about his then fledgling business Help Remedies. Help could loosely be described as a marketer of over-the-counter drugs (and bandages). But it's also one of those potentially category-changing offerings that tries to solve a problem.
"We wanted to work in something where there were real problems," said Fine, when we talked. "In health care you tend to have two extremes, professional marketers pushing product in unfriendly ways, sometimes frightening people into doing things, even inventing ailments or issues to get you to buy their product. At the other end of the scale you have homeopathy, which is much friendlier but is also full of quackery. It was an area where we thought a little simplicity and friendliness could go a long way."
So Fine and partner Nathan Frank created six products: Help I Have A Headache; Help I Have An Aching Body; Help I Have Allergies; Help I've Cut Myself; Help I Have A Blister; and Help I Can't Sleep. They are packaged in biodegradable molded paper pulp and a plastic made primarily of corn. The packages are white, embellished only with the does-what-it-says product name and a clear description of the contents, such as "16 acetaminophen caplets (500 mg each)."
Each package contains the maximum dosage allowed of the drug most likely to treat the problem, plus the minimum possible amount of fillings and coatings. So, for example, the sleep aid doesn't also contain a painkiller, and the ibuprofen in the aching-body pill isn't covered in red dye. "They're incredible drugs that have saved millions," said Fine. "But they're not celebrated for what they are. We've covered them up with bad branding and confusing messages. If you think about pain relief, there's two drugs, ibuprofen and acetaminophen, but there are 8,000 SKUs [stock-keeping units] on the shelf."
The confusion can even create issues that concern the FDA, said Fine. "There's acetaminophen in cold remedies, the consumer doesn't know it's there, and they take the cold remedy plus some Tylenol, so they end up doubling up."
All the Help Remedies cost $4, making the headache pills a little more expensive than others on the aisle, and the allergy medicines cheaper than most of their competitors. (Five percent of all profit is donated to getting health care for people without it.) Each Help product contains "enough to get you through," but not hundreds of pills. "Because the incremental cost of adding pills to a bottle is low, manufacturers throw in hundreds, but that can encourage people to treat them like candy."
The products just started retailing late last month through Ricky's, Food Emporium and Target Red Hot Shop. They're also at Drugstore.com, on Virgin America airplanes and Help's own site, helpineedhelp.com.
Help's first efforts at promotion were pretty good, too. They created live window displays at Ricky's centering around their different products -- a woman trying to sleep for the sleep aid, a guy on a treadmill in high heels for its blister relief product -- and around issues, too, with one window that read on one side: "Everyone should have health care," and on the other side, "Except ..." accompanied by pictures of the senators not endorsing a public health-care plan at the time. The displays also generated some buzz, with coverage from Vanity Fair, Creativity, Racked.com, PSFK and many more.
If you were going to back a new business to succeed, you probably wouldn't back one going into a highly regulated market such as over-the-counter drugs, dominated by giants such as Wyeth and Johnson & Johnson, and dependent on a handful of major retailers. But at the very least, we should hope that Help Remedies forces some of the bigger players to think again about their package designs, messages, location in the drugstore aisle and maybe even place in the world.