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Pharmaceutical Marketing: In A World Of Me-Too Drugs How Do Companies Differentiate Their Products?
Yesterday, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that it would not hold an advisory board meeting focusing on Wyeth’s new antidepressant, desvenlafaxine, which some have dubbed “son of Effexor.”  The agency came to this decision after reviewing clinical data on the drug’s safety and efficacy profile.  FDA decided that it had enough information to make a decision about whether to approve the drug for marketing without seeking the advice of non-agency scientists. 

This week, Merck touted the results of a clinical trial focusing on a possible successor to Vioxx, Arcoxia.  While the drug is currently marketed in 62 countries, US regulators have so far opted not to approve the medication because of concerns that the drug may increase patients’ risk of high blood pressure, blood clots and other side effects.  Like Vioxx, Arcoxia is a COX-2 inhibitor.

What’s intriguing about these medications is that both are “me-too” drugs.  This means that there are few significant differences between these drugs and others already on the market.  With a number of pharmaceuticals facing patent expiration and a glut of me-too medications on the market, how are drug companies positioning their products?

Following is a brief overview of some of the major strategies pharmaceutical marketers use to differentiate their medications and gain market share.
Pile On The Data

One of the most effective ways to differentiate a product in a crowded marketplace is to produce clinical data indicating that a drug is vastly superior to similar medications.  Pfizer has followed this strategy in marketing Lipitor. The company developed and pursued an extensive clinical trial program for the medication.  In recent years, Pfizer has produced a number of studies indicating that high-dose Lipitor reduces patients’ risk of heart attack, stroke and death better than other cholesterol drugs.

The “pile on the data” strategy has paid off handsomely for Pfizer.  Bloomberg reported yesterday that the company has succeeded in increasing revenues for Lipitor by convincing doctors to prescribe higher doses of the medication.  Sales of high-dose Lipitor increased by 10 percent in June.  Low-dose Lipitor sales decreased by 10 percent during the same period. 

Change The Formulation
Companies can also differentiate their products by creating new formulations of old medications that are more convenient for patients to take.  Eli Lilly pursued this strategy with limited success when it released Prozac Weekly prior to the expiration of Prozac’s patent.  Roche developed Boniva, a once-monthly formulation of a popular class of osteoporosis medications called bisphosphonates.

Conduct Massive DTC Advertising Campaigns 

Another way to differentiate similar products is to market them massively to consumers.  Developers of sleep aids like Lunestra and Rozerem have launched extensive direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising campaigns to raise consumer awareness of their products.  This makes sense as some people suffering from insomnia will self-diagnose and ask their physicians whether a sleep-aid they learned about on television can help them.  These advertising campaigns have been effective, as sales of these anti-insomnia medications have skyrocketed. 

Link The Product To An Emotion

Pharmaceutical companies can also differentiate their products by engaging in emotional branding.  These campaigns increase loyalty to a product by helping consumers to associate it with emotions like safety, well-being, joy and virility.  (For more on emotional branding and pharmaceutical marketing, please see this Brand Channel white paper.)

Clearly makers of erectile dysfunction drugs have pursued this strategy as illustrated by DTC advertisements for these medications.  Marketers of Viagra, Cialis and other medications have encouraged male consumers to link their products to feelings of sexual well-being and satisfaction.

Novartis, which produces the antihypertensive Diovan and the anti-cancer medication Gleevec, has also engaged in emotional branding.  The company has produced radio and television spots featuring people who have benefited from the medications attempt to encourage feelings of safety and gratitude in listeners. 

Closing Thoughts

While these are not the only strategies pharmaceutical companies use to differentiate their products in crowded, mature marketplaces, they are some of the most popular.  Expect companies to refine and expand these marketing methods as their medications face patent expiration and intense competition from similar products. 

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The Potential Fallacies Associated With Me-Too Medications

“But corruption is neither need based nor greed based. It’s simply opportunity based.” -----Billy Tauzin, president and C.E.O. of PhRMA, the pharmaceutical industry’s most powerful lobbying group, as Mr. Tauzin stated in Boston recently.
It has been said by others that the pharmaceutical industry should not have government regulation or interference from our government at all because that would drastically limit if not eliminate innovation as well as our health care choices and options, both from the perspective of the doctor and the patient, so the public has been told often by others. Also what has been stated by this industry that their internal controls prevent wrongdoing? So, according to some, the public’s health would be limited and possibly harmed without the copious innovation of this industry. As with other issues we face as citizens, this is another attempt by these others to apparently install fabricated fear in our minds- void of any proof or reason, and is a fallacy.
As it has turned out, the pharmaceutical industry’s lack of innovation in particular has happened and they have appeared to do this on their own, overall, those innovators and lifesavers.
Over the past several years, those few meds created and FDA approved with true therapeutic advantages happened by discovery with government involvement in over half of these meds with clear clinical advantages for certain patients. Conversely, of the new chemical entities approved lately and developed by drug companies, over 50 percent of these have microscopic therapeutic advantage for patients, so I understand upon information and belief. This inefficient drug development by the pharmaceutical industry has created what is now the dominant development strategy of drug companies, and this strategy is known as the intentional development of what are phrased, ‘me too’ drugs.
These drugs essentially are small molecular variations of the original molecule in a particular class of medications. In other words, they tweak the original molecule in order to obtain patent rights for their now new drug project. This me too objective of drug companies now accounts, I believe, for about 80 percent of the research budgets of drug companies. And because the FDA only requires a potential med to be superior to a placebo in their mandatory clinical trials, usually these me too meds are approved- regardless of their necessity for others, or the need for such drugs.
And me too drugs are selected by the drug company for their potential blockbuster status as well as the speculated growth of a particular market, which means making over 1 billion dollars a year on such a drug, at least. For example, statin drugs, for high cholesterol patients, is a multi- billion dollar market. As a result, there are several statin meds now available for use by doctors to prescribe to their patients. Yet, arguably, me too drugs are all essentially very similar in regards to safety, efficacy, and cost, regardless of the class referred to so often saturated with me too meds, with few exceptions. The differences overall are minor once again with most me too drugs, overall. As aggressive marketers, the makers of these meds are suspected of doing a bit of publication planning, it is suspected, to falsely claim superiority of their newly approved me too drug over all the other drugs in a particular class both during and after the creation of these me too meds. Also, other classes of meds with several me too drugs may include SSRI anti-depressant drugs, as well as those meds for hypertension. There may be a dozen drugs in a particular class of medications that are all essentially the same in regards to their treatment abilities for patients with such disease states that they treat.
Now, there may be cases where a patient tolerates one drug in a class over another for unknown reasons, so in these few cases, some me too drugs occasionally are beneficial for patients for some reason or another, but should absolutely not be a primary objective of the drug companies to create them as often as they do. Instead, true innovation and discovery should be the focus of pharmaceutical companies, and it does not appear to be the focus of the pharmaceutical industry, presently. It appears that, thanks to the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, they license molecules from those in the academic world, and then proceed with development of another’s creation they claim as their own.
Further vexing is that competition in the pharmaceutical industry amazingly does not and has not been of any financial benefit for the consumer, as competition normally does create. This fact is greatly demonstrated with other industries and is the apex of business operations. This pharmaceutical industry model is an exception, and the reason for this remains an unknown, as far as the etiology of being deprived of this costly environment of drug spending, yet it can be speculated that the me too drug makers claim uniqueness of their me too drug, which is rather deceptive.
This progressive marketing paradigm of the pharmaceutical industry, such as the creation of me too meds solely for their own profit, clearly illustrates their focus on these issues over true research and science, so it seems. Innovation, along with ethics, use to define this pharmaceutical industry. Sadly, it seems this is not the case today, which ultimately and potentially deprives potential treatment methods potentially for the public health if the objectives were focused on their true purpose. Yet hopefully, such historical qualities of drug companies will return some time, in time.
“Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.” --- Oscar Wilde
Dan Abshear
Author’s note: What has been written was based on information and belief.

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