Hot statin drugs play agency musical chairs

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Cholesterol-lowering statin drugs are growing fast, and the three major players are in a fierce competition to win the hearts of the nearly 16 million Americans who have untreated high cholesterol.

The market for the medicines continues to grow about 20% a year, according to Merck & Co. statistics. Last year U.S. statin sales climbed 18.7% to $8.9 billion, says Vicky Kim, strategic analyst for pharmaceutical consultancy Frost & Sullivan. Lipitor is the category leader, and Pfizer reports it had more than $5 billion in worldwide sales.

SUPERSTATIN LOOMS

Top contenders are Merck's Zocor and Bristol-Myers Squibb Co.'s Pravachol. On the horizon is a superstatin, AstraZeneca's Crestor, which has not yet been approved by the Food & Drug Administration but is expected to hit the market by mid-2002. Lipitor had a 51.2% market share of the U.S. cholesterol-lowering drug sector as of last November, Zocor had 22.8% and Pravachol 13.6%, according to Frost & Sullivan. It reports 25 million people in the U.S. have high cholesterol, but as of 1999, only one-third were being treated.

Several of the statins are relying on agencies relatively new to their accounts, setting the stage for fresh directions in direct-to-consumer advertising.

In account moves over just a four-month period involving New York agencies, Lipitor moved to Omnicom Group's Merkley Newman Harty from Cordiant Communications Group's Bates USA. Pravachol shifted to Havas Advertising's Robert A. Becker Euro RSCG from True North Communications' Bozell. Merck and Schering-Plough Corp., which jointly are developing ezetimibe, tapped Omnicom Group's DDB Worldwide. AstraZeneca hired Omnicom's KPR for Crestor. Zocor remains at WPP Group's Ogilvy & Mather Healthcare.

CHANNELING IN TWO AREAS

Pharmaceutical companies are aggressively channeling spending into two key activities-clinical trials to reach more patient populations and strategically targeting direct-to-consumer advertising, Ms. Kim says

The biggest statin advertiser for January through November of 2000 was Zocor with $67.7 million in media spending, according to Competitive Media Reporting. Pravachol was close behind with about $61 million. Lipitor, however, spent only $56.9 million, raising the question of how important traditional advertising is to the statin marketing puzzle.

ZOCOR USES FOOTBALL COACH

Zocor has pitched to middle-aged men with its campaign featuring the endorsement of National Football League coach Dan Reeves that broke at the end of '99. Mr. Reeves discusses the heart trouble he experienced and how Zocor helped him prevent a recurrence.

Pravachol spent the most of the statin drugs on advertising in the first six months of 1998, Ms. Kim says. CMR reports Pravachol's media spending at $61 million-$20 million more than the No. 2 spender Zocor and nearly $50 million more than the market leader, Lipitor.

But when Bristol-Myers realized the drug's market share was not increasing, in 1999 it stopped DTC marketing for Pravachol, Ms. Kim says. DTC spending resumed in 2000.

A recent study of Pravachol appearing in the January issue of Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association showed it reduced the risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 30% and stroke by 20%. Pravachol has been proven to reduce heart attacks in patients with and without coronary heart disease, a fact that is played up in ads for the drug. Whether or not the latest study will be incorporated in Pravachol's new DTC advertising campaign is uncertain.

"DTC advertising is not always proportional to market share," Ms. Kim notes. "Lipitor, considered to be one of the most successfully launched products, has implemented the least amount of resources on DTC advertising of the market share leading cholesterol busters."

Warner-Lambert Co., which later merged with Pfizer, did not rely on DTC advertising for its 1997 launch of the drug. Instead, the marketer unleashed its corps of pharmaceutical representatives on cardiologists who in turn recommended the drug to patients.

PR EFFORT

"Promoting good public relations to these key targets created a large market share from the start. Members of the sales team promoted the benefits of [low-density lipoprotein] reduction to cardiologists, emphasizing Lipitor's superiority among the statins in regards to its efficacy," Ms. Kim says. "The large sales force was key to the success of the product launch to secure key targets. Thereafter, DTC advertising was used to promote compliance, persistence and further market development."

Ms. Kim underscores the fact that statin marketers are conducting clinical trials to increase patient population. Merck, for example, has studies under way with 40,000 patients including women, the elderly and people with diabetes.

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