If you were one of the creative geniuses attending the annual TED Full Spectrum conference in Long Beach, Calif., a few weeks back and happened to cut your finger, you’d be grateful for the package of bandages handed out called Help: I’ve Cut Myself and I Want to Save a Life. Help Remedies, a pharmaceutical startup, not only provided its own brand of generic bandages free of charge, it also invited TED attendees to register their freshly spilled blood with DKMS, the world’s largest bone marrow donor center. The kit contained a sterilized cotton swab to collect blood and a prepaid envelope for injured TED attendees to send in their sample. Help’s website features a video, narrated by a shirtless man in silver body paint, dressed as a bread knife, offering further explanation on the value of donating marrow.
Help is fast becoming a case study in the triumph of branding. Co-founders Richard Fine and Nathan Frank are doing for generic drugs what American Apparel (APP) did for plain T-shirts: wrapping them in cool with every trick in the downtown branding playbook, from hip packaging to absurdist videos to youth targeting. Fine, who, like Frank, previously worked in branding and advertising in New York, is the son of two medical professors in England. “Medicine’s an entirely self-referential world filled with terrible communicators,” he says. “MDs love warnings and being very technical about things.”
Pharmacy shelves full of confusing packaging and obscure jargon overwhelm customers and lead to dangerous cocktails of drugs. “If you buy Tylenol PM, it has both a painkiller and a sleep pill,” says Fine. Citing a 2004 study, Fine says that acetaminophen-related overdoses are the leading cause for calls to Poison Control, with more than 100,000 per year. “Excedrin sometimes has three or four drugs just for a headache. These companies mix a load of drugs, put on racing stripes, and wrap them in packages that are very confusing.”
The idea behind Help, which launched in 2008, is to cut through the confusion by offering single-ingredient drugs in low doses, with clear, symptomatic titles, such as “Help: I Have a Headache” (acetominophen) or “Help: I Have a Stuffy Nose” (phenylephrine). Frank, Help’s creative director (a title rarely seen in the drug world), wanted to sell the medicine as though it was coming from a friend, not a doctor in a lab coat—or an actor playing one. He and Fine worded Help’s marketing material in the first person, stripped down the packaging to a simple white, biodegradable carton, and presented their pills without colors or coatings. “The soft tactility of the package is soothing, as are the rounded corners, designed to ease consumers’ minds in a world of [over-the-counter] containers with sharp corners,” says Jim Butschli, editor of Healthcare Packaging magazine, who is familiar with Help’s products. “Simple graphics such as ‘I Have a Headache’ get right to the point,” he says, “and likely [speak to] the reason the consumer is shopping in the medication aisle in the first place.”
Help’s branding relies heavily on humor. “If you try to maintain a tone of science and seriousness, it’s really alienating,” says Frank. On the back of Help’s nausea medicine, the package jokes about how the pills are flavorless: “We were going to make them deviled-egg flavor, but then we thought it might defeat the purpose.” There are dozens of mock problems on their website, such as Help: I am Worried About My Penis Size, Help: I’m Racist, or Help: I Want My Cat to Be a Cover Model, each of which links to a tongue-in-cheek solution.
Most in the pharmaceutical marketing business see Help’s point but cite genuine reasons behind the standard approach to marketing drugs. “It is much more important that consumers focus on the product characteristics rather than the brand,” says Dr. Paul Tunnah, managing director of Pharmaphorum.com, an industry chat site based in the U.K. “In other words, the old adage of ‘sell the sizzle, not the steak’ is not appropriate for medicinal products, as the sizzle isn’t what helps someone get better.”
But all else being chemically equal, the sizzle is what has driven new business. In 2011, Help registered $4 million in sales, a 1,000 percent increase over the previous year. Fine projects that figure will grow to $15 million by next year. He knows Help will never be able to compete with Johnson & Johnson (JNJ), which spent $340 million promoting Tylenol from 2008 to 2009, or with supermarket generic brands, which are capturing increasing market share of the baby boomers, the industry’s bread and butter. Instead, Help targets people in their 20s and 30s who are largely ignored by the big brands. That’s why, in addition to pharmacies and grocery stores, Help can be found at high-profile conferences and in the minibars of Morgans Hotels (MHGC). The tactic is more common for vodka or fashion brands: Rely on tastemakers to spread the product to a larger market.
Richard Meyer, managing director of Online Strategic Solutions, a healthcare marketing consultant, is skeptical about Help’s strategy. “It’s hard to put OTC drugs under a brand experience,” he says, noting how consumers are moving in droves to generic options purely for price. “[Consumers] look at ingredients, know what they’re buying, and how much they pay. What am I getting for the extra money of the brand?” The younger customers Help targets, Meyer notes, happen to be the least brand-loyal of all drug consumers.
While the company isn’t yet profitable, it is growing revenue through national distribution in both Walgreens (WAG) and Target (TGT), impending entry to Canada, and an expanded product line coming out this summer. “Everybody in branding starts snack food and beverage businesses,” says Fine. “They chase after these categories where there’s already a lot of brands … there’s 8,000 small beauty brands out there. In pharmaceuticals, you have the big companies, and then you have us.”