Real-life insomnia stories at core of new Merck-backed awareness campaign

Zac, Jessica, Jana and Julie are "Beyond Tired." That's the name of the new awareness campaign from Merck & Co. ($MRK) and the National Sleep Foundation, featuring four average Americans and their insomnia experiences as a way to promote and discuss sleep health.

"If you think about cholesterol treatments, hypertension treatments or other traditional chronic conditions where diet and exercise is a foundational component, good sleep habits and understanding how to sleep well is roughly the equivalent of that," said Eric Luthi, executive director and global brand leader for insomnia marketing, Merck Global Human Health. "This is really about building the right foundation for patients no matter what path they go down, whether it's medicine or cognitive behavioral therapy or just sleep hygiene."

Merck's insomnia drug Belsomra rolled out earlier this year, and while the "Beyond Tired" campaign is unbranded and disconnected from Belsomra product advertising, it is meant to foster the overall idea of a building a good sleep "foundation" for a healthy life, as Luthi noted.

The four insomniacs wrote and created videos that will be revealed over the next several months as the campaign continues, said Laura O'Dea, the director of marketing for the National Sleep Foundation. While no concrete plans have been made past that, both Merck and NSF expect the initiative to continue and expand, becoming more interactive and building community around the issue.

O'Dea said the foundation, which educates and advocates for sleep health, has been planning this effort with Merck for almost a year. "When it comes to insomnia, people often feel very isolated and alone. The idea was to help people know they're not alone; they're not the only ones," she said.

A Belsomra TV advertisement--Courtesy

Separately, Merck is running a branded campaign for Belsomra, which includes DTC TV ads. According to real-time TV ad tracker, Merck spent $13.4 million on a spot that features furry animated pet-like words "wake" and "sleep" in September, ranking second in FiercePharmaMarketing and iSpot's monthly tally of pharma TV ad spending. Before that, Merck ran an unbranded TV, print and digital ad campaign with a female cartoon character called "Why Am I So Awake."

Merck and the foundation want to take the conversation beyond typical sleep advice. "Many of the insomnia websites or blogs and forums say the same thing," Luthi said. "You have to have room darkening shades, keep your room cool, go to the bed at the same time every night--very basic sleep hygiene tips. We've learned that most people who are suffering from insomnia have done so for a long time and they've tried all those things.

"And it hasn't worked for them," Luthi added. "Making this personal and bringing it in a way where people can share their own stories and what has worked for them, we thought is a better way to go at it than the bland generic way that's out there now."

The overall sleep aid drug market is down, thanks in part to the patent drop-off of blockbuster meds Lunesta, from Sunovion, and Ambien, from Sanofi ($SNY). 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 are expected to rebound by 2023 to $1.8 billion, led by Belsomra, GlobalData says. Eisai's not-yet-launched E-2006, as well as an increasing number of insomnia cases, will also factor in. Analysts are pegging this year's Belsomra sales between $300 million and $500 million.

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