Head to head struggle

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Arthritis pain reliever Celebrex generated 17 million new and refill prescriptions in 1999, more than were generated by the next two leading pharmaceutical blockbusters -- Viagra and Lipitor -- combined during similar post-launch periods, according to IMS Health data.

"Being first [to the market] created a lot of opportunity [and] you get to meet an unmet medical need," says Joseph Papa, president of Searle U.S., a division of G.D. Searle & Co., marketer of Celebrex, the brand name of a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug known as cyclooxygenase-2, or cox-2 inhibitor.

Launched January 1999 by Searle, the pharmaceutical division of Monsanto, Celebrex was marketed jointly by Monsanto and Pfizer as "Powerful relief, safely delivered." The initial marketing budget was an estimated $25 million.

Celebrex's 1999 U.S. sales soared to a stunning $1.4 billion, according to IMS Health, compared with yearend sales of $371 million for Vioxx.

In the first month Celebrex was available in the U.S., the market for this type of anti-inflammatory drug grew by 20%, says Mr. Papa, and to date, an estimated 7 million U.S. patients have taken Celebrex. Creative, from Leo Burnett USA, Chicago, showed people having fun outdoors or enjoying life with family.


Vioxx, released May 1999 by Merck & Co., is giving Celebrex a run for its money. The company set an industry record when the product hit pharmacy shelves just four days after receiving U.S. Food & Drug Administration approval, rather than the usual four to six weeks, says VP-Marketing Wendy Dixon.

"The good thing about coming after [Celebrex] was it allowed us to take their marketing into consideration," Ms. Dixon says. "We had the luxury of testing our promotional material directly against theirs."

Merck spent more than $81 million promoting Vioxx in 1999. Initial marketing for Vioxx targeted physicians, but by late November, the company began direct-to-consumer marketing.

The first Vioxx TV spots, created by DDB Worldwide, began airing last December, and emphasized the drug's effectiveness in a single pill. The ads used the tagline, "For everyday victories," which represented arthritis sufferers as simply wanting to get on with their lives.

Together, Vioxx and Celebrex captured a 21% share of the $2.3 billion anti-inflammatory drug market within six months, according to Express Scripts, a pharmacy management company. The drugs are in a two-product market for cox-2 inhibitors. Their main competition comes from over-the-counter varieties of ibuprofen, naxopren and aspirin.

"The question is, is there a market for two cox-2 inhibitors. The answer seems to be, clearly, yes," says Megan Kate Murphy, healthcare analyst at Argus Research. "Merck is typically known for having an extremely strong sales force, known for being a little bit stronger than Monsanto. That will give them an edge."

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