MM&M All-Stars Large Pharma Marketing Team of the Year: Symbicort (AstraZeneca)

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AstraZeneca's Symbicort, the second-to-market ICS/LABA combo behind GlaxoSmithKline's Advair, faced an uphill battle on its launch in June 2007, squaring off against a firmly entrenched competitor that created and dominated the category.

Two and a half years later, Symbicort holds around 14% of the bronchial combo category, having gained five share points over the course of the year, according to SDI data—much of it due to a successful COPD launch.

“We've seen accelerated growth in the second half, and we attribute much of that to the indication for COPD,” says commercial brand leader Suzanne Delaney.

She notes that the company's share of new-to-combination scripts has risen to a third of those written by specialists and a quarter of those written by primary care physicians.

The brand's standout gains, driven in part by standout advertising making the most of the brand's fast-acting claim, have continued well past the point were most launch trajectories flatten out, earning it MM&M All Star status.

Inhaled corticosteroid/long acting beta agonist combos like Advair and Symbicort act to open up airways (the LABA or bronchodilator—formoterol, in the cast of Symbicort) while soothing inflammation (budesonide, the corticosteroid). Advair, which had its US launch in 2000, was a revolutionary advance over monotherapies such as Singulair and Pulmicort for many patients, and ICS/LABAs now account for nearly a third of all asthma and COPD scripts.

Symbicort's point of differentiation is its claim to open airways in 15 minutes in asthma patients (as early as 5 minutes in COPD patients) while providing effective long-acting control of inflammation. The drug doesn't replace a rescue inhaler but offers many patients the prospect of having less need to use one.

“It sounds simple, but it's something that impacts every part of their lives, from when they wake up, to when they go to bed, to whether they can participate in exercise or family functions,” says development brand leader Chris Blango.

Tightly integrated consumer and professional campaigns were at the core of AstraZeneca's game plan.

“We really believe that's important as we think about the dialogue we want to establish between the physician and the patient,” says Lesa Henry, consumer director. “We believe that the messages and the look and feel and all of those things should be synergistic and supportive of one another.”

The brand launched to healthcare professionals in 2007. Consumer TV and print, borrowing creative concepts from the professional campaign, went out in 2008. The “Silhouette” campaign was intended to be visually arresting, focusing the viewer's attention on the silhouetted speaker, with few background visuals to distract attention from the message.

“All the spots out there in pharma are very ‘slice of life,' using real people,” says Henry. “We wanted to take a different approach, and we felt that in the competitive world, where Advair was very dominant and familiar to patients, we needed to grab their attention and also make sure we could clearly communicate to patients.”

The brand was one of the first on YouTube, with a channel aimed at driving traffic to a destination site, The YouTube channel drew 31 million impressions by mid-year, surpassing AstraZeneca's annual goals.

In August, AstraZeneca launched a separate campaign for the COPD indication, with 60-second ads featuring an older man leaning against an antique truck, only briefly referencing the “silhouette” theme. COPD patients are slightly older on average than asthma patients and research showed they wanted their information from somebody they could identify with. The company is also running an unbranded education campaign around COPD featuring actor Robert Klein.

For the professional campaign, in addition to advertising and personal selling, AstraZeneca invested heavily in not only traditional digital channels but also in “conversational e-detailing” with Jellyvision, digital radio with ReachMD and a stripped-down mobile version of the brand website providing key info like managed care access, prescribing information and patient support information.

“We're really trying some very unique programs to engage physicians and give them, in some cases, an even more in-depth experience with Symbicort than we can with our personal selling situations,” says brand promotions director Cathy Cockerill.

Symbicort isn't out of the woods yet. Advair loses patent protection in 2011, and Merck has filed for approval to market a similar combo drug, Dulera, which also contains formoterol and could boast fast-acting properties similar to the AstraZeneca drug.

All that makes the foundational work of capturing market share and building brand equity that AstraZeneca has accomplished all the more vital.

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