Pfizer Debuts 2007 Marketing Line

January 31, 2007
Pharmaceutical Executive

Volume 1, Issue 5

Drug giant's new style features brains over brawn.

Pfizer might be aggressively cutting costs on its sales side, but plans for big consumer rollouts--including for the much-anticipated diabetes drug Exubera--are full-steam ahead.

With least 20 percent of the sales force on the chopping block, Pfizer appears to be substituting brains for brawn--educating patients (and, to some extent, doctors) through direct-to-consumer methods.

It's no longer uncommon to find doctors barring their doors against perky, pretty reps bearing freebies of all kinds. In fact, the Street started seeing a "rash" of sales force cuts in 2004, according to Michael Zbinovec, a pharmaceutical analyst at Fitch Ratings. "They're following a bit," he said about Pfizer. "I think they're the last holdout in cutting down the primary care sales force."

But Pfizer's products won't sell themselves--especially those in hotly competitive categories (like Lipitor) and those with questionable risks (like Celebrex). At the company's recent analyst meeting, Ian Read, president of worldwide pharmaceutical operations, outlined some of the plans Pfizer has for its biggest growth drivers.

Most significantly, consumers will see the first promotion efforts for Exubera, the inhaled-insulin breakthrough that has been slow to get off the ground since studies raised concerns about its long-term lung safety. For that reason, Pfizer has opted for a phased approach, focusing on specialists before introducing it to general practitioners.

"What you will see in 2007 is a full-court press," said Read, who admitted, "The initial marketing and educational challenges relating to Exubera were more time- and resource-focused than we expected."

Newly diagnosed diabetics delay insulin therapy by an average of more than eight years, according to Read. "They see [insulin] as the end of the road," he said. Working with diabetes educators, the campaign will focus as much on emphasizing the importance of early treatment as on the benefits of inhaled delivery over standard injections in order to highlight how Exubera could increase compliance.

Exubera needs such a value pitch, since insurers have been slow to embrace the hype. The drug was the most heavily promoted product to managed care plans in the third quarter of last year, according to Cognet-X, which conducts weekly surveys of managed care executives.

Pfizer is also gearing up to launch a consumer campaign for its designer anti-smoking drug, Chantix (varenicline), aimed at nothing less than changing the entire mindset of smokers, doctors, and insurers. In what may be a clue to the company's tactics, Read called nicotine addiction a "chronic, relapsing medical condition."

Marketers will be using these four buzzwords to persuade physicians that smoking is less a lifestyle than a physical problem--and it requires long-term use of a prescription drug rather than a quick OTC nicotine patch. Pfizer will also be driving home this message to patients with personalized Web sites, a cravings hotline, and interactive workbooks. To be successful, Pfizer needs to get around what Read calls a "lack of understanding" about the quitting process. "We recognize that these are early days for this medicine, and challenges still lie ahead," he said. Not least among the challenges are the many surveys that suggest that smokers who quit cold turkey have the highest rate of success.

The company is also ramping up consumer outreach for its promising anti-cholesterol, anti-hypertension combo drug, Caduet (amlodipine/atorvastatin), where initial promotion helped contribute to a 39 percent increase in prescriptions since November, and for Geodon (ziprasidone), where a "Know the Facts" campaign alerts patients to the risks of diabetes and metabolic syndrome.

Other brand teams on the "go" list include marketers both for Lipitor (atorvastatin), who are pitching its greater efficacy in the face of growing damage from generic simvastatin, and for Celebrex (celecoxib), who are talking openly about heart concerns in a "CV Safety First" effort to counter widespread fears of COX-2 inhibitors.