MM&M All-Stars Small Pharma Marketing Team of the Year: Keppra (UCB, Inc.)

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Since last year, when UCB, Inc. let users of its antiepileptic Keppra speak for the brand, patients have become an important visual and vocal component in all promotion.

“These are the people who are heroes,” explains Matthew Simonian, UCB group product director. “They're willing to stand up and say, ‘I am the face of epilepsy.'”

The patient pitchmen, sourced from UCB's Epilepsy Advocate Program, give their testimonials on keppra.com and in other venues. They're part of an efficiently run campaign that relies heavily on the Web and word-of-mouth advertising. The advocates, combined with a new IV formulation of the drug and two additional seizure indications, have built on an already successful franchise—so much so that MM&M named Simonian and colleagues their Small Pharma Marketing Team of the Year.

Levetiracetam receipts have grown at a double-digit clip since 2002, and that's with just one major indication—add-on epilepsy treatment—while others in its category have expanded into other therapeutic areas. Keppra achieved $729 million in sales through September, a 43% rise over the same period in 2006, IMS Health figures show. (Sales for the 12 months ended in August topped $900 million.) With roughly $15 million spent on promotion, according to IMS, ROI clocks in at an impressive 18:1.

UCB is committed to the category in several ways. For starters, the firm has broadened Keppra's patient utility on an add-on basis while evolving the creative. The second-generation product has the distinction of being the first anti-epilepsy drug (AED) to advertise on television, at the end of 2005. The spot was not Keppra-specific, recalls Simonian, but was designed to prepare patients for the debut of Medicare Part D and to find out whether their AED was covered.

Cris Morton, client service director at Keppra's professional AOR since 2003, LyonHeart, says the decision to move beyond the “Keppra, foundation for therapy,” and K building block icon, to putting patients in the spotlight was done in close consultation with physicians. “Seeing epilepsy through a patient's [eyes is] critical for the success of the brand,” Morton stresses. “All materials bring patients into the mix, emphasizing ‘seizure-free, no side effects.'”

Patients in the DTP campaign play similar roles in the physician campaign. The patients are allowed to tell their real stories. “We don't take that for granted; it's not added fluff,” says Simonian. “These are words that have come out of their mouth.”

The straight-talking advocates have helped to “de-sensationalize” epilepsy, he says, adding that there is still a stigma and a great need to raise awareness. “Not only do people not understand the disease, they still think that people with epilepsy must have other mental, physical disabilities. There is even still a perception in some cultures that they may be possessed by demons.”

Prior to the merger with Schwarz Pharma AG—the German company UCB's Belgian parent bought last year for 4.4 billion euros ($6.4 billion)—UCB Pharma had about 150 reps. That number now exceeds 200.

Its commitment doesn't stop with patient and physician awareness, however. UCB runs a program that awards scholarships to people living with epilepsy and their caregivers, and a nonprofit K9 assist program offering service dogs for children with special needs.

Keppra could face generic competition late next year, but an extended-release version of the drug is planned, and UCB is developing a successor, brivaracetam.

Other impressive small pharma brands included last year's winner, Gilead's antiviral Truvada, for continued strong sales despite minimal promotion, and Endo's analgesic Lidoderm, for double-digit, year-on-year earnings. Amylin's diabetes therapy Byetta also posted solid numbers.

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