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For decades, Bayer was so identified with aspirin that it practically became a generic word. But today, if consumers want an aspirin at all, often it's a store brand.

The nearly century-old Bayer brand has hit the ropes, pummeled on two sides. From the left comes private labels with lower prices; from the right, non-aspirin pain relievers.

Some of Bayer's blows are self-inflicted. Eastman Kodak Co.'s Sterling Winthrop virtually dropped its marketing support for the brand when it introduced Bayer Select non-aspirin pain relievers in 1992 with a $100 million-plus budget. Consumers, used to linking Bayer with aspirin, didn't warm to the new line.

Bayer (including Bayer Select analgesics but not cough/cold products) dropped 17% to $125.6 million for the 12 months though July compared with the same period a year earlier, says Towne-Oller & Associates. The entire pure-aspirin category was down 1% to $271.3 million. But private-label aspirins were up 6% to $127.7 million.

Sterling "thought if they advertised Bayer Select, it would spill over to Bayer. ... It didn't," says Harry Groome, chairman of consumer brands for SmithKline Beecham, which recently agreed to buy Sterling's global OTC business. SmithKline has since agreed to sell nearly all of Sterling's North American OTC drugs, including Bayer, to Germany's Bayer AG.

The marketer had begun to change its approach before the sale. In August, Sterling Winthrop launched a $20 million campaign specifically for Bayer aspirin, the first effort from BBDO Worldwide, New York.

Bayer AG is convinced the brand can be saved. "There are challenges ahead, but for numerous reasons-not the least of which is the bottom line-we're more than willing to take on those challenges and to do the kind of marketing that needs to be done," says Elliot Schreiber, senior VP-corporate communications for Miles, the U.S. subsidiary of Bayer AG.

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