Sports evolves as critical ED therapy battleground

By Published on .

Most Popular
It's been six years since Pfizer introduced a unique and innovative drug therapy to help men with a common, yet embarrassing, condition.

The condition is male impotence, better known now as erectile dysfunction. The drug is called Viagra, and since 1998 the marketing support to overcome male squeamishness about the condition has evolved from using a respected politician as pitchman, to employing sports heroes, to promoting the lifestyle virtue of "mischief."

quick with the jokes

Initially, Viagra became the fodder of many a joke from late-night talk show hosts. But when Pfizer hired former U.S. senator and Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole to talk about ED in an unbranded ad, it legitimized the condition.

"For men with ED, they were afraid that if they couldn't perform sexually, then their partner would think that they were somehow less of a man," says Timothy J. Pigot, director-U.S. team leader for cardiovascular metabolic, which includes Viagra.

"This stigma was so strong that having a respected celebrity such as Bob Dole, who was a U.S. senator and war hero, was absolutely essential to start breaking down the barriers and encouraging men to speak with their physician and their partner about ED."

Two years later, Pfizer made the logical leap: sports marketing.

Nowhere else can so many marketers reach so many men aged 18-59 than by positioning their respective brands with advertising and/or sponsorship of sports leagues and televised sporting events.

"Of course, [sports marketing] hadn't really been done before in pharmaceuticals so there was no road map for us to follow," Mr. Pigot says.

"Additionally, we were faced with the challenge that not everyone was comfortable in working with us at first because of the uncertainty as to how fans would react to our involvement," he says. "We worked hard to maximize our sponsorships early on with grassroots events such as our men's health screenings at Nascar events. And as a result of our efforts, we have found that sports fans have embraced our sponsorships, and we have been able to accomplish quite a lot to reduce the stigma around ED."


Six years after Viagra was introduced, this outlet is even more important to Pfizer, which is now trying to fend off competition in the ED market. After having exclusivity in the category for five years, two competitors-Levitra, from GlaxoSmithKline and Bayer, and Cialis, from Eli Lilly & Co. and Icos Corp.-arrived on the market in the fall of 2003.

From 100% market share, Viagra now claims 70% of global users, according to Pfizer. Year to date, sales have topped $1 billion but have declined 12% year-over-year. Earlier this year, Pfizer moved direct-to-consumer ad responsibilities in the U.S. from longtime agency Cline, Davis & Mann, New York, owned by Omnicom Group, to McCann HumanCare, a unit of Interpublic Group of Cos.' McCann Erickson Worldwide.

Now all three ED rivals hawk their brands, in part, by using sports as a platform.

"It's a no-brainer," says David Carter, president of Sports Business Group, Los Angeles. "Everything can be considered a niche. There's a reason why some marketers load up on daytime television soaps and talk shows or on pet shows or on MTV. Everybody is always looking for a way to focus its brand as sharply as possible. And sports just might be the biggest niche out there."

Schering-Plough Corp. became the pioneer in the sports marketing shift with its 1999 deal for allergy medication Claritin when it became a sponsor of Major League Baseball. A year later, Pfizer got into the genre by becoming the main sponsor of Nascar driver Mark Martin. Viagra still appears across the hood of Mr. Martin's car. In 2002, Pfizer signed a three-year, $30 million deal with baseball and aligned itself with slugger Rafael Palmeiro to be the league's "face" of Viagra.

Arthritis drug Vioxx, taken off the market by Merck & Co. two months ago, also used sports as a way of marketing by featuring Olympic gold medal skater Dorothy Hamill in commercials. It wasn't the first time Merck had dipped into sports to find a face for one of its brands. Several years ago, Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Reeves hawked its cholesterol blockbuster Zocor.

Each of the three ED drugs uses sports in its respective marketing, though Cialis, as the last of the ED drugs to appear on the market, has done so to a lesser extent. Cialis signed an agreement last year to be the main sponsor a PGA Tour event outside Chicago, the Western Open, and also has a sponsorship in auto racing's Championship Auto Racing Teams.

Levitra has truly taken the ball and run with it. Before hitting the market in August 2003, it negotiated an $18 million deal with the National Football League to become a league sponsor. Smart move. NFL games accounted for four of the 15 most-watched TV programs in 2003 and six of the top 10 reaching men aged 18-34, according to Nielsen Media Research.

After signing the deal, Levitra launched simultaneous campaigns: a branding effort for the drug and an awareness campaign called "Tackling Men's Health" that featured former NFL player and coach Mike Ditka.

"There are a lot of brands out there in this category, and one way to stand out and really get a lot of buzz going in the marketplace is to align yourself with a high-profile athlete," says Wally Hayward, CEO of Publicis Groupe's Relay Sponsorship & Event Marketing, Chicago. "But the key is matching up the authenticity behind it that will help drive sales."

"The goal of [Pfizer's] efforts is to reduce stigma around ED and motivate men to speak with their physician about ED," Mr. Pigot says.

"In this context, sports marketing makes sense for us because it not only reaches our patient population efficiently, but we are able to communicate with them around something that they are passionate about and engaged in."

"What we did with the original campaign was extremely successful over time," says Pfizer VP Patrick Holmes, who also holds the title of director-U.S. team leader for cardiovascular metabolic. "What we've learned since was there was still a significant number of men out there who did not get beyond the stigma of the condition."

Hence, consumers have witnessed the transition from septuagenarian Bob Dole, to current athletes Messrs. Martin and Palmeiro, to larger-than-life man's man Mr. Ditka.


And, some might say, the transition to the overall theme of positioning the medications as "lifestyle" drugs. Cialis did it when it first came to market, touting the difference-making feature of lasting up to 36 hours. Levitra quickly answered earlier this year with its spots featuring a sexy, 40-ish woman talking about how the drug helped "my man."

McCann HumanCare's latest ads for Viagra feature a middle-age man who sprouts blue horns on his head, formed by the letter "V," when he considers how the blue pill might help him to, as the tagline encourages, "Get back to mischief."

But executions also vary by country and by culture, so what's good with sports marketing in one nation might not be good in another.

In Japan, for instance, doctors' offices usually combine waiting and consultation areas in one room.

McCann recognized that Japanese men responded to the advertising and wanted to talk to their doctors about ED, but were shy about having such a discussion in a room with 15 other men present. So McCann created a card, printed with information and questions about ED, that was sent out to anyone who requested it. Patients could present that to a doctor-wordlessly-and thus skirt a potentially embarrassing situation.

"It was sensitive, and it understood there was a barrier," says Simon Hunter, senior VP-group account director at McCann Erickson.

In this article: