World: Analysis - Agencies use branding tricks on erectile disfunction drugs

Newcomers are fighting for their share of the $1.5 billion market.

To date, the UK's experience of erectile-disfunction drug marketing has been limited to a Pfizer-funded print ad starring Pele; a man who still scores, just not for Brazil any more. There's no mention of Viagra.

Instead, the 66-year-old former international urges men who are having trouble getting it up to get down to the doctors and get it sorted. He also goes to some lengths to stress that he's had no complaints so far, thank you very much.

It's a far cry from the market for ED solutions in the US: a market that is changing the way prescription medicines are marketed and branded, and one that is hotting up with the entry of two new products, Eli Lilly and Icos Corp's Cialis and GlaxoSmithKline and Bayer's Levitra.

Cialis, the most recent entry in the lucrative ED market, has thrown a firework at the competition with a new US campaign promising to buy first-time Cialis users a prescription for the rival drugs Viagra or Levitra if they are not satisfied.

Dubbed the "Cialis promise", the campaign is a first for the pharmaceutical industry and the latest step by ED drug manufacturers to apply the tried-and-tested rules of product branding to prescription medicines. Patients can try a free sample of Cialis with a doctor's prescription. They are then directed to a website where they can download a voucher for another trial of Cialis or, if they prefer, Levitra or Viagra.

Cialis was launched early this year amid a $100 million marketing blitz.

Three months earlier, GlaxoSmithKline and Bayer launched Levitra. Pfizer, whose Viagra has had a five-year head-start on the competition, responded by upping its marketing budget to more than $100 million and sacking its agency, Cline Davis & Mann, replacing it with McCann Erickson New York.

Estimates by Lehman Bros put a $1.5 billion-plus value on the US market for ED drugs. Viagra owns 85 per cent of that market, but Levitra and Cialis are making significant inroads. Twenty per cent of all new prescriptions are for Cialis, and Viagra's worldwide sales dropped by 12 per cent during the first quarter of 2004.

Building a strong brand is now seen as crucial in the pharmaceutical industry. Prozac lost 70 per cent of its business in the US within three months of going off-patent, and neither Cialis, Levitra or Viagra are keen to repeat that lesson - especially when facing a global market that will be worth more than $6 billion by the end of the decade.

"As any therapy area becomes more crowded, the role of branding plays a more critical part as companies seek to communicate clearly and consistently the distinctive core proposition of their brand," Rebecca Robins, the global marketing director at Interbrand Wood Healthcare, says.

So the three products are attempting to carve out a niche by concentrating on their points of difference. Pfizer is marketed on its history: current ads encourage ED-sufferers to "join the millions". It's a move away from commercials that point out the efficacy of the drug, shifting the emphasis towards purer branding techniques: Viagra is the drug that men know, love and trust.

Both Viagra and Levitra continue to embrace celebrity endorsement. Viagra has a sponsorship deal with the Nascar driver Mark Martin and the Major League baseball player Rafael Palmeiro, and Levitra is playing off its $18 million three-year sponsorship deal with the NFL with a series of ads starring the tough-talking coach and ex-NFL player Mike Ditka, who as good as orders men to: "Take the Levitra challenge." Another ad focuses on Levitra's point of difference - that it takes as little as 15 minutes to work - and stars a woman who lets the audience in on a secret: her man takes Levitra. "The difference," she says, "is the quality of the response."

Many see it as an improvement on the first Levitra ad that, in an eye-wateringly bad sexual metaphor, featured a man attempting to throw a football through a tyre hanging from a tree. Only after he takes an implied dose of the drug does he manage to "get in the zone".

"This is a market where there's a strong need for emotional engagement with the consumer," Robins says. "That needs to take into consideration not only the man, but also the woman." She points out that it's interesting that the majority of ads in the ED market have chosen not to adopt overly or singularly masculine communications cues.

Cialis, meanwhile, with its 36-hour working window, is positioned both as the choice for couples who are looking for a more normal sex life without the pressure to perform under time constraints, but also as the choice of the single fortysomething who might need some help on a Saturday night. It's not been dubbed "Le Weekender" for nothing.

Its ads, by Healthy Grey Village, the pharmaceutical division of Grey Global Group, are a curious mixture of prim lines such as "When a tender moment turns into the right moment" and a more brutal disclaimer that includes a warning that the drug may cause an erection that lasts up to four hours.

"It will be interesting to see whether Cialis and Levitra rise to the status of the household name that Viagra has become," Robins says. "Viagra is now listed in the OED, and that blue diamond-shaped pill is one of the very few instantly recognisable pharmaceutical brands."

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