Rx ads mired in '50s tactics

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All marketers have felt the influence of pharmaceutical advertising over the past six years, as once-flaccid prescription drug names have evolved into late-night TV catchphrases. Only advertising could cement "erectile dysfunction" in middle America's vernacular. What was once known only as a selective inhibitor of cyclic guanosine monophosphate is now commonly known as Viagra, Bob Dole's "little blue friend."

Millions of dollars, snappy taglines and celebrity endorsements have become all the rage in the advertisement of prescription drugs. As the time on the market under patent protection continues to shrink as a result of the increasing time required for regulatory approvals, the advertising push will increase in order to strike while the iron is hot.

The pharmaceutical industry and its agency partners as a whole have not invested in modern-day branding strategies, instead relying on tactics reminiscent of 1950s consumer-package-goods advertising. In this way, pharmaceuticals have failed at the true art of branding, settling for being trendy and top of mind rather than capturing a unique space in the hearts and minds of their target audience.

However, in the rush to get top-of-mind awareness in both doctors' and consumers' heads, the product managers and their agencies skipped the essence of branding in favor of a focus on naming and advertising weight. While successful in the short term, these tactics do not lay the foundation for a sustainable strategy.

According to Craig Granowitz, senior product manager at Schering-Plough, marketers of Claritin, one of the Rx spending leaders: "The majority of pharmaceutical branding seldom goes further than picking the name and then screaming it at consumers and doctors until they hear it." Look at a few current campaigns. You'll see the same thing: great use of colors, catchy taglines, a scientific-sounding name and a gratuitous celebrity endorsement. But that's not branding.

selling not marketing

Pharmaceutical manufacturers are still trying to sell drugs, not market them. They are misusing advertising as a promotional tool rather than an investment in the long-term viability of the drug. Instead of trying to build a meaningful relationship with consumers and doctors alike, the brands are still screaming to be heard.

This type of advertising risks "genericizing" a branded product. By focusing merely on the name of the drug, a descriptor (blue pill, purple pill ...) and (if we are lucky) a mention of the disease state, the products achieve nothing more than basic word association. Its eerily similar to `50s-style TV campaigns for consumer package goods: a memorable jingle for name recognition (what's your bologna's first name?) and a product attribute (who can forget floating soap?). But as competition became fiercer, CPG companies evolved their advertising to be more focused on creating a relationship between consumers and brands. This relationship creates an ownable brand equity and forms the basis of many brands' sustainable competitive advantage: equity protection can outlast and outperform even the coveted patent protection.

Pharmaceutical companies should take a page out of the consumer-packaged goods playbook. They should push their agencies to quickly evolve their practice to develop a brand, not just a name with a fancy logo. They should push for a brand that has values, a character and most importantly a brand equity. They should develop a brand that stands for something (other than the disease), a brand that owns a unique place in the hearts and minds of consumers and doctors.

Learning from Jif

For example, "Choosy Moms choose Jif" isn't just a catchy peanut butter tagline. It signifies Jif's effort to identify its brand with women who want to do the best for their families. Jif has become a symbol of "spreadable love" and an expression of good care-taking by moms. Yet drug makers identify themselves by disease and efficacy. There's typically no attempt at resonating with the patient on any deeper, ownable level. It is this ownable tie to the brand that allows even their OTC cousins to see growth despite generics in similar packaging touting the exact same formulation. Vick's DayQuil's perceived superiority is driven by the branding-not the syrup.

Pharmaceutical companies should also recognize creating a brand is an investment. It may not require more funds overall, but it requires more focused dollars upfront to develop brand strategy and better placement for more targeted messaging. As pharmaceutical brands become more fully developed, they'll be better at at fighting off competitive entries and succeeding beyond their patent protection. And consumers will do more than hum the brand's jingle. They'll be filling scripts.

Jay Woffington, a former brand manager in Procter & Gamble Co.'s new ventures unit, is partner-chief marketing strategist at Bridge Worldwide's Bridge Healthcare, Cincinnati.

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