Tylenol gets the generics battle

Generics are always a major threat to a brand sales (DUH!) But unlike a few years back, instead of cutting off all marketing spending and simply giving in to the generic, we are beginning to see see that the potential profit in branded drugs for companies and ongoing quality concerns by patients make this a new area of patient communications. Branded drugs can, and are, defended against generics, and Tylenol is an example.


J&J's Tylenol has been doing a lot of radio advertising lately, and it's all about how you should only trust Tylenol, not anything but. This is their "blunting" message on their Web site:

Some store-brand pain relievers think if you compare their medicine to TYLENOL® you'll buy the store brand. We think it depends on what you compare.

  • TYLENOL® has patented technology and clinical trials no store brand can match.
  • Doctors recommend TYLENOL® more than all generic pain relievers combined.
  • TYLENOL® works with your body in ways that have been trusted and proven for over 50 years.
  • TYLENOL® does not make any generic or store-brand pain relievers.

I think that is a pretty well-formed argument about why you should pay more. And few brands have a better cache of trust than Tylenol, so it is compelling. And that's just OTC. (A confession: I only buy branded Advil…why? I am not really sure, I just have this "feeling" it's better quality.)

For pharma, the clinical stakes are obviously much higher for Rx drugs than for OTC. Nobody takes Effexor because they have a cold and a headache. In Rx, there is the issue of bioequivalence between branded manufactured drugs and generic manufactured drugs. The example that came to mind this week was for anticonvulsants, like Keppra, having to compete with generics. In this case, it is the doctor who is reluctant to switch to a cheaper formulation due to concerns about quality of the generic as well as the overall disruptive potential involved in changing any anti-epileptic treatment.  Thisi ssue has also arisen in the general, consumer press — a recent article in Self magazine was entitled Bad Bargain: The Dangers of Generic Drugs. The title speaks for itself, and since women are typically the Chief Health Officer of the family household, this piece speaks directly to them.

This also holds true of biologics, anti-depressants, birth control, anti-psychotics, and a host of other serious drugs.

So, the issue is quality, and the marketing approach used by the pharma companies is seeding doubt about generics while enhancing trust in the branded drug. The biggest challenge in all of this is trust, the hardest marketing value there is. Creating trust requires much more than money. Trust is something you build, not something you buy. This is tough ground to cover, both from a credibility as well as from a legal perspective.  

A good strategy in this environment is the "king-of-the-hill" approach that ignoring the "other" creates doubt through confidence: "We're branded and proud of it. Don't doubt the quality. Don't doubt who made your drug and the standards involved in that." Stand proud! Accept no substitutes!" It's sort of a pharma marketing version of a Presidential Rose Garden strategy.

To pull this off, you need to once again surround the argument . You need to have other venues, and use actual people to vouch for your brand. Patients, doctors, nurses, caregivers — for the anticonvulsants all these voices are compelling and create a collective credibility that cannot be easily ignored with the "But I'm saving money" argument.

Since branded drugs can actually spend to make an argument supporting their superiority, they also need to use a level of tansparency. Taking from Tylenol, the first point they make is the rational argument that taps into the emotional doubt:

"TYLENOL® has patented technology and clinical trials no store brand can match."

Why not explain how your drug is made? Why not spend some time working with nurses and patients and some good copywriters to explain in human terms the clinical trial process, results and track record of your branded drug? Why not add a tab to your brand Web site "Brand X and Generics"?

It seems to me that as with so many issues arising for drug companies and their brands, the real challenge is being able to communicate in a human way that is educational, transparent, creative and engaging.Pharma companies need to get away from number- and outcome-driven marketing to awhat you can call "marketing with a human face." Imagine a flash-based MOA video that had a patient actually telling the story of your drug?  What about adding the photos of the team that took it to Phase III successfully? There is nothing dishonest, in fact, it is the opposite — an honest perspective on why you should trust the brand. True, you will never hold your entire share when facing a generic, but you probably can slow the attrition.


Join the discussion One Comment

  • Bosie Shipstead says:

    There is a lot of misinformation in this post. A generic must contain the same active ingredients as the original formulation. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), generic drugs are identical or bioequivalent to the brand name counterpart with respect to pharmacokinetic and pharmacodynamic properties. By extension, therefore, generics are identical in dose, strength, route of administration, safety, efficacy, and intended use. In most cases, generic products are available once the patent protections afforded to the original developer have expired. When generic products become available, the market competition often leads to substantially lower prices for both the original brand name product and the generic forms. The time it takes a generic drug to appear on the market varies. In the US, drug patents give twenty years of protection, but they are applied for before clinical trials begin, so the effective life of a drug patent tends to be between seven and twelve years.
    Generic drugs can save patients and insurance companies substantial costs. The principal reason for the relatively low price of generic medicines is that competition increases among producers when drugs no longer are protected by patents. Companies incur fewer costs in creating the generic drug, and are therefore able to maintain profitability at a lower cost to consumers. The costs of these generic drugs are so low that many developing countries can easily afford them. For example Thailand is going to import millions of doses of the generic version of Plavix, a blood-thinning treatment to prevent heart attacks, at a cost of 3 US cents per dose from India, the leading manufacturer of generic drugs.

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