Merck ramps up Belsomra marketing, hoping to wake up a sleepy insomnia market

Merck global brand leader Eric Luthi

Can a new kind of sleep aid rejuvenate the sleepy insomnia market? Merck ($MRK) is hoping so, pushing its new wakefulness-blocker drug Belsomra with an expanded marketing campaign.

Unbranded TV spots "Why Am I So Awake" are running on national TV, as well as in paid promotions on YouTube and in-office at healthcare practices around the country. Print ads are appearing in national weekly and monthly magazines, while digital marketing includes a WhyAmISoAwake website, Twitter ($TWTR) page and hashtag, and a mobile "Sleep Guru" app with tips for adopting healthy sleep habits.

"Many conversations about insomnia are initiated by patients, so we have developed a broad range of resources to encourage dialogue between patients and their healthcare providers," Eric Luthi, global brand leader at Merck, told FiercePharmaMarketing in an email interview. "… We are focused on explaining the different mechanism of action for Belsomra and the science of sleep, helping to teach people what goes on in their brains when they are awake at night."

That's because Belsomra is a different kind of insomnia drug that selectively blocks orexin, which is "a central promoter of wakefulness" in the brain. Other drugs to date work from the opposite tack of promoting sleepiness. Luthi said the difference is important and central to Belsomra's marketing efforts.

The overall sleep aid drug market is slumping, thanks in part to the patent drop-off of blockbusters meds--Sunovion's Lunesta and Sanofi's ($SNY) Ambien. Insomnia drug sales are predicted to fall to $1.4 billion in 2016 from $2.1 billion in 2013, according to research from GlobalData. However, sales will rebound to $1.8 billion by 2023, predictions say, led by Belsomra, with GlobalData estimates of $458 million in sales that year. Eisai's not-yet-launched E-2006, as well as increases in the number of insomnia cases, will also factor in. Analysts are pegging this year's Belsomra sales between $300 million and $500 million.

Other inhibitors to insomnia market growth have revolved around unusual patient reactions (sleep eating and driving, for instance) and FDA-mandated lowered dosages after studies about lingering effects. So while not a new revelation, a recent study that resurfaced the drowsiness danger of sleep aids could be a case of bad timing for Belsomra. Published in the American Journal of Public Health online this month, the study specifically looked only at zolpidem, sold as Ambien; trazodone also sold as Oleptro; and temazepam sold as Restoril, but found that taking those sleep aids almost doubled users' risk for car accidents.

- see the TV commercial
- read AJPH journal abstract

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