In so doing, Procter & Gamble branded “OTC” as a way to differentiate medication that could be purchased by any consumer from medication that required an Rx. This opened the floodgate for other manufacturers to pursue a similar strategy in heartburn medication as well as other drug categories.
“Rx-to-OTC switches continue to be an engine of growth for the OTC industry,” writes Laura Mahecha, a Healthcare Industry Manager for Kline, a worldwide consulting and research firm, in an October 2009 blog. “With all the competition from private labels and pressure from retailers for brands to offer more value, switches will remain a way for branded marketers to expand the price points, margins, and profitability of their OTC portfolios.”
Procter & Gamble acquired the rights to market the blockbuster drug from its manufacturer, AstraZeneca, agreeing to pay the company a royalty on sales. By 2004, Prilosec OTC was the top-selling OTC heartburn medicine, and in the following year, it was named the #1 doctor recommended OTC acid reducer. Procter & Gamble claims the drug has been used for “10 million patient treatments.”
The Prilosec OTC introduction was what you might expect from a brand machine like Procter & Gamble. The company spent upwards of US$ 100 million to launch the product. It debuted in bright purple packaging – the pills are pink – in a campaign that included print, broadcast, billboards, and over 1,000 purple vans that made their way through two dozen US cities.
Why purple? Apparently, Procter & Gamble wanted to trade on the brand awareness of the original Prilosec, which became known as the “purple pill.” Later, however, AstraZeneca introduced prescription Nexium – basically an enhanced version of Prilosec – which replaced Prilosec as the “purple pill.” In fact, www.purplepill.com leads a consumer to the Nexium website.
Procter & Gamble applies the same kind of consumer research to a drug as it does to a detergent. Over the years, Prilosec OTC has been a sponsor of the NFL, because brand managers believe heartburn is associated with football games and the food consumed watching them. Last April, the company launched “Prilosec OTC’s BBQ Shootouts” at various NASCAR racing events. The idea was rooted in the fact that barbecues are enjoyable but for some, they cause heartburn – so the promotion recommended that frequent heartburn sufferers take Prilosec OTC two weeks before attending a BBQ Shootout.
The latest Prilosec OTC pitch has a heavy online orientation. According to its website, Prilosec OTC wants to be the “Official Sponsor of Everything You Do Without Heartburn.” Participants are asked to create an online profile that includes “what you love to do, and what you need to do it better,” and then ask friends to vote for them. Profiles are reviewed and individuals are selected to receive “sponsorships.”
Procter & Gamble is keeping the promotional pressure on because this is a crucial time for Prilosec OTC. Sales of the drug were about $314 million in 2008, almost a 20 percent drop from the year prior, according to Information Resources Inc., which measures all retail sales with the exception of Wal-Mart. The decline is the result of competition from generics and other similar products.
The latest competitive threat to Prilosec OTC is from another anti-heartburn OTC drug with similar effectiveness and a similar name, Prevacid 24HR. Launched by Novartis in November 2009, Prevacid 24HR is being supported by a $200 million media campaign, twice the amount invested in the Prilosec OTC launch.
When Prilosec OTC launched, a competitor made a claim against the product in an attempt to prevent Procter & Gamble from touting its ability to cure heartburn so quickly. In a case of déjà vu, Procter & Gamble recently petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to prevent Prevacid 24HR from making claims about relieving heartburn faster than Prilosec OTC.
It seems that brand differentiation is an on-going challenge in the pharmaceutical business.