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Drug Story

September 29, 1996|Hillary Broome

Introduced to the United States in 1977, the prescription ulcer-treatment drug Tagamet (cimetidine) was the first drug ever to reach $1 billion a year in sales. But SmithKline Beecham, which acquired the drug in a 1991 merger, had a patent that ran only until May 1994, so the company swiftly began strategizing to save their blockbuster. In addition to treating ulcers, Tagamet was also a H2 blocker, slowing the production of stomach acid; over-the-counter marketing to heartburn sufferers looked promising. "The patent was already going to expire," says Paul Madzik, currently the senior brand manager for Tagamet. "We had to prove to the FDA that it was safe [for heartburn sufferers] and that it worked and then look at trying the switch."

To prove Tagamet's effectiveness, the company designed extensive heartburn studies. 'We needed thousands of patients to really have statistical power, the studies had to be carefully blinded so there were no placebo errors and it had to be a real-life situation. People took the medication home to treat themselves, just like a patient would from the drugstore," Madzik said.

In 1995, after four years of testing, SmithKline Beecham presented its results to the obligatory FDA Advisory Committee, and Tagamet was cleared to enter the OTC market in August, under its familiar, albeit unsexy, name.

"There was a lot of equity in the Tagamet name," Madzik says. "Consumers use it, doctors use it, pharmacists use it. We thought it was important to keep that recognition, to make sure people know what it is."

Unfortunately for Tagamet HB, Merck and Co.'s Pepcid AC burst onto the acid-blocker scene in June, three months before the Tagamet release, and soared to the top of the heartburn market.

"Prior to our launch, Pepcid AC was spending very heavily," Madzik says, "and we knew we had to spend significantly, to the level of $100 million in advertising and product support."

For the unique eclipse packaging design, Tagamet turned to the San Francisco-based firm of SBG Partners, where the account was overseen by Flavio Gomez, senior managing partner. "We were going off the idea of the acid-blocking, and hit on the idea of the eclipse, the shadow of the earth on the sun," Gomez says. "It's a very strong, powerful image."

Gomez says they originally experimented with more tried-and-true heartburn packaging: the stomach diagram. "You can't walk down the grocery store aisles without seeing those boxes with drawings of stomachs on them. But fortunately, we tested out our other ideas, and the eclipse seemed to communicate the concept quite well."

"The eclipse blocks the sun, the hot fiery substance," Madzik says. "It's a bit of an analogy, and it made for a good brand signature device."

"We wanted to make the box dark to contrast the eclipse, making it very visible, with a halo effect that was very dramatic," Gomez said. "And it stood out from the rest in that category because they're all in white boxes, and we went dark, dark blue."

In August, the dark box with the orange fireball rapidly filled television screens and billboards, winning SBG Partners a packaging industry award for design.

The advertising firm working with Tagamet came up with the echoing sonic boom in the TV spots, adding to the portrayal of Tagamet as the drug of the future.

Madzik says Tagamet is currently changing its marketing tune. "Initially the focus at launch was on our heritage as a prescription drug, that this powerful medicine was available at last, the idea that led to the Nobel Prize. (The scientist who discovered the H2 receptor, the focus of Tagamet's medicine, was honored for his study of messenger/receptor chemistry.) But now we're emphasizing the real consumer benefits of being able to prevent heartburn," he adds. "We're taking it out of outer space and bringing it to people's homes."

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