Branding Disease

Oct 14, 2007

IT'S difficult to turn on the television these days without getting an earful on medical conditions that were unheard of just a few years ago. Diseases that were once obscure at best, such as "Restless Legs Syndrome" (RLS) nd BPH (benign prostatic hyperplasia, or enlarged prostate), now have become as commonly known as heartburn and eczema. So what's going on? Have researchers uncovered a whole new world of diseases—or are the names just new?

The answer to both questions is yes. The phenomenon described above is known as disease branding, and it has become an increasingly important and frequently used strategy for pharma marketers who are looking to differentiate their products while also building new understanding about diseases among patients and physicians.

WHY BRAND A DISEASE?

Disease branding has grown in popularity largely because it builds customer awareness and makes the complexities of medical conditions easier to understand.

While detractors have criticized the practice as empty profiteering, in truth, disease branding provides many legitimate benefits for both pharmaceutical companies and their customers. These benefits can include:

  • New understanding of diseases that have been around for many years
  • Awareness of little-known conditions
  • A more positive (or a less negative) perception

of a disease.

SEEING OLD DISEASES IN NEW WAYS

To understand how disease branding can drive new understanding of existing conditions, consider "anxiety" as a brand.

While the condition encompassed a broad range of patients and symptoms in the late 20th century, anxiety as a stand-alone brand fails to spell out the vastly different aspects of the condition as we know it today and, in turn, fails to guide physicians and patients in the selection of the most specific, effective therapy.

Over the years, medical researchers have come to acknowledge that all anxiety is not alike. People who suffer from acute, debilitating attacks (panic disorder) benefit from a different therapeutic approach than those who worry about every little detail (obsessive-compulsive disorder). By branding diseases more specifically, patients and healthcare professionals—as well as society in general— are united in how they understand and approach such pathology, thereby transforming confusion, frustration, and stigma into awareness, satisfaction, and better self-esteem.

Disease branding can also create new understanding of the seriousness or legitimacy of certain conditions. For example, the term heartburn was coined decades ago by antacid brands, and suggests that the mechanism of action in the treatment of indigestion is acid neutralization, which is exactly what antacids do. However, researchers discovered in the 1980s that chronic heartburn could be further described as a malfunction of the esophageal sphincter—a more serious disorder that can

lead to the erosion of gastrointestinal tissue over time. Glaxo and its drug Zantac worked to rebrand chronic heartburn as a more insidious medical concern, coining the term GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease).

Branding GERD not only shifted the public's perception about the dangers of chronic acid reflux, it also put Zantac in the spotlight as the best overall solution. Acid blockade (which is what Zantac and other H2 antagonists do), rather than acid neutralization, implies that the problem should be stopped at the root of the condition, not after it manifests itself and does damage.

Years later, proton pump inhibitors were able to take better advantage of this disease brand because they blocked acid even further up the acid-cascade cycle.

BRINGING OBSCURE CONDITIONS TO LIGHT

Disease branding can provide similar benefits for conditions that have never been widely recognized. The most notorious example of late, Restless Legs Syndrome, is a bona fide neurological disorder that has been acknowledged by the medical community since the late 19th century.