Pfizer teaches shops to zig, zag

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Pfizer distinguished itself from its pharmaceutical brethren nearly five years ago when it charged a disparate collection of agencies-among them shops known for promoting race cars and assemble-yourself furniture-with putting a handful of drugs on par in consumers' minds with brands like Kleenex and Tide.

Among the medications included in that major direct-to-consumer push: Lipitor, Zoloft and Celebrex, which today are Pfizer's top three brands, a fact that indicates the success of what was at the time a highly unconventional approach by neophyte drug-marketing shops.

Today, drug ads are ubiquitous, making it easy to forget that pharmaceutical marketers are relative newcomers to the advertising big leagues. Pfizer and its competitors began honing their consumer-focused messages after the Food & Drug Administration in 1997 loosened rules governing how drug companies could advertise to the public. Since then, pharmaceutical marketers have muscled their way into the top tier of advertisers. Pfizer was No. 18 earlier this month in Advertising Age's ranking of Top 100 Global Marketers, with worldwide ad spending topping $1 billion in 2003.

Although Pfizer's Viagra, Lipitor, Zoloft and Zyrtec in 2003 were among the top 10 drugs in DTC ad spending, according to NDCHealth Corp., Atlanta, the pharmaceutical giant's prowess is not simply the result of hiring agencies and plowing money into ad campaigns. "Other companies are scared of Pfizer," says one executive familiar with company and its competitors. "[What] Pfizer does [doesn't] go unnoticed. They are smart people and open-minded to innovation."

Pfizer continues to zig where its competitors zag: While numerous rivals have already or intend to consolidate accounts with one or more agency holding companies, Pfizer marketing executives insist that the freedom to solicit input from any agency is crucial.

"We took a page out of our research and development colleagues' book," says Dorothy Wetzel, VP-consumer marketing group. "We generate a lot of ideas, then we screen them and test them to see what's most effective."

Pfizer's lineup of DTC agencies includes global networks like Interpublic Group of Cos.' McCann Erickson Worldwide and Omnicom Group's TBWA Worldwide, both New York; micro-networks like Havas' Arnold Worldwide, New York; and smaller agencies including WPP Group's Berlin Cameron/Red Cell, Omnicom's Merkley & Partners and Publicis Groupe's Kaplan Thaler Group, all New York.

ask for it by name

Broadly speaking, the main charge of Pfizer's agencies is simple: Get consumers into doctors' offices. According to one expert, as much as 80% of the time when consumers ask a doctor for a brand, the physician will give it to them when the doctor deems it appropriate. Advertising, says Ms. Wetzel, must not only induce a visit to the doctor but also lead to what she calls "a productive conversation"-that is, asking for a drug by name.

"What's the point of going to seek help if you don't think there's a solution?" she asks. "That's where branded advertising plays a role."

The specific marketing challenges Pfizer's agencies tackle vary brand by brand, due to factors ranging from competition to level of consumer awareness of a particular ailment and its symptoms.

Despite its status as a category leader, for instance, cholesterol medication Lipitor presents an advertising conundrum. The drug, introduced in 1997, is widely regarded as one of the most effective in its class of statins. Yet compliance-getting patients to stay on the medication-is a problem.

With a "non-symptomatic ailment like high cholesterol, you don't feel any better if you're taking it. We needed to come up with a surrogate for that reward," says Peter Fekula, group account director at Merkley & Partners, which created the "Numbers" campaign.

To address this, Merkley created a new component to the "Numbers" effort: testimonials from people who've stayed on the drug. These testimonials help "get the message of success out there," he says.

An added benefit of building compliance and loyalty among current users of Lipitor is to stave off the potential impact of a cheaper alternative from Merck & Co.'s Zocor, which is slated to go generic in 2006. "As soon as [drug] prices go down, it'll be more effective to maintain a current user than to get a new one," notes Bob Ehrlich, CEO of DTC Perspectives, a consultancy and publisher.

New and cheaper competition from Schering-Plough Corp.'s over-the-counter Claritin, coupled with a rise in the number of managed care plans that have hiked co-payments making patients less inclined to buy prescription antihistamines, led to a recent message shift for Pfizer's Zyrtec.

"We feel we can compete with a superior product," says Eric Sirota, VP-respiratory, allergy and specialty therapeutic group. A campaign that encouraged consumers to identify the allergens plaguing them and turn to Zyrtec for relief has evolved into a message emphasizing the multitude of allergies Zyrtec is approved to treat.

Created by Berlin Cameron/Red Cell, the campaign builds on consumer insights, an area of increasing emphasis for Pfizer and its agencies these days. "We really need to have a deeper understanding of the emotional as well as the rational drivers people play back and want," Ms. Wetzel says.

From qualitative research, including focus groups and enthnographies, Pfizer learned that people sample many allergy medications before sticking with one. "Qualitative is so important," Ms. Wetzel says. "You get some brilliant creatives listening to consumers, and they process information differently than I do. That's where the magic happens."

The research showed that "once consumers get to Zyrtec, they stay on it," says Mr. Sirota. That message-dubbed internally as the "Zyrtec journey"-is used not only to reach consumers but also doctors.

"Doctors don't necessarily know all the medications a patient has tried," Mr. Sirota says, so Pfizer's consumer and professional focus aims to "elicit conversation about the churn."

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