Brand of the Year

Feb 01, 2007
By Pharmaceutical Executive Editors

Pharm Exec's first annual Brand of the Year honor goes to Gardasil, Merck's breakthrough vaccine for human papillomavirus. By combining innovative science, strategic commercialization, and savvy disease education, Team Gardasil created a campaign that evoked Merck in its prime—and made strides toward stamping out cervical cancer.

The morning of Merck's annual analyst meeting dawned bright and crisp. At the podium inside the drug giant's Whitehouse Station, NJ, headquarters last December, CEO Richard Clark was beyond buoyant. "We executed every aspect of this launch flawlessly," he said about Gardasil, crowing most loudly about the speed with which the pioneering HPV vaccine made it onto state guidelines and won formulary coverage.

No less than its public health benefits, the rollout of what the media has dubbed "the first cancer vaccine" has cast a halo over Merck, which was badly bruised by the recent fallout from its Vioxx withdrawal and ensuing litigation. But Gardasil is Merck at its best. A 2005 corporate-image campaign put it well: Merck is the company that made diseases like polio, mumps, and measles anachronistic to generations of children. And now, the only company ever to be named "Most Admired" by Fortune seven years in a row is poised to do the same with cervical cancer.

A great brand is more than just great branding. A great pharmaceutical brand tells a story—about fulfilling a lifesaving need, overcoming obstacles both scientific and social, and teaching people a health lesson that lasts.

Pharmaceutical Executive selected Gardasil as the 2006 Brand of the Year, our first, because it embodies the kind of links between science, commercialization, and humanity that typify great pharmaceutical breakthroughs. It turned a medical success story into a campaign of empowerment for a generation of girls and young women. Merck's researchers used visionary science to produce a vaccine with the potential to eradicate the third-most-common cause of cancer worldwide, while marketers taught girls and young women how to talk about sensitive issues in a forthright, unapologetic way.

Gardasil is also a vaccine that broke the mold, creating a host of logistical and policy challenges that it then had to go about solving before women showed up in their doctors' waiting rooms. It made a market out of thin air, advancing the first hope of preventing an infection that strikes as many as one-quarter of women in some nations and kills an estimated 232,000 every year.

But hope or not, there were aspects of Gardasil that kept it from being immediately embraced, which might have overwhelmed a less determined company. For starters, there was a staggering ignorance about the virus that Gardasil targets. Secondly, the vaccine has to be given to a population group that spans the spectrum in terms of where they receive primary care, at a time in their lives—puberty—when many shy away from regular check-ups. Finally, and most formidably, there was the issue of teen sex: Merck has had to negotiate a minefield of sensitivities related to the fact that because the human papillomavirus (HPV) is primarily transmitted through sexual contact, girls and young women ideally need to get the vaccine while they are still virgins.

Finding the Link

Team Gardasil Seated, from left: Eliav Barr, Marian Wentworth, Kathryn Hofmann, and Pat Brill-Edwards. Standing, from left to right: Keith Chirgwin, Joseph Sullivan, Keith Gottesdiener, Beverly Lybrand, David Schechter, Richard Haupt, and Guillerme Lesser. (Not pictured: Kelley Dougherty and Melissa Leonard)
In the late 1960s the idea that viruses can cause cancer was just taking shape. Cervical cancer was a prime area to which this theory could be applied, since its incidence appeared to be linked to sexual activity. Herpes simplex looked to many like the logical cause, but German scientist Harald zur Hausen had a different hunch: What if HPV was the culprit?

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