Sanofi and MannKind launch Afrezza DTC ad campaign in stealth mode

MannKind's Afrezza

Surprise! It's a DTC campaign for Sanofi ($SNY) and MannKind's ($MNKD) Afrezza. The low-key ad launch of "Surprise, It's Insulin" came with little fanfare, unlike the media and industry scuttlebutt surrounding the drug itself, which has been closely watched and analyzed for more than a year.

The DTC marketing for the inhaled insulin drug finally hit the market last week, but so far only online and in limited print ads. The tagline "Surprise, It's Insulin" appears on ads on the Afrezza website, as well as in a multipage print ad in the Aug. 3 Time magazine.

The gray-haired man featured in that print ad--noted as an actual Afrezza user--even looks surprised. The print ad subhead reads: "Introducing Afrezza, the only inhaled insulin," and the Afrezza $0 co-pay plan is featured in the bottom right corner. The man is also featured in online video ads that invite consumers to click to "Discover Afrezza."

A small start to be sure, but every little bit may count. Analysts and financial investment types--and Sanofi and MannKind themselves--have noted that DTC marketing could boost a so-far sluggish launch. Sanofi's recently reported second-quarter earnings showed only $2.2 million for Afrezza's first full quarter of sales, which brings the drug's total since launch to just $3.3 million.

Cost and pre-authorization lung tests are well-known issues in Afrezza's molasses start, but The Street also contends that Sanofi has done a "poor job marketing Afrezza"--and with 35% of doctors still not knowing about Afrezza, they may have a point. The Street also pulled numbers to show that Afrezza's start is even worse than the previous inhaled diabetes drug failure, Pfizer's ($PFE) Exubera.

Matthew Pfeffer, MannKind's chief financial officer, told The Los Angeles Times after the Q2 financial results were released that he expects sales to pick up with the DTC campaign along with the expansion of sales staff marketing the drug directly. The company has previously said that it was employing a "phased launch," focused first on a smaller group of influential endocrinologists rather than the broad swath of diabetes prescribers.

"Advertising and new Internet-based marketing efforts did not begin until this quarter, so their effects have not yet been seen," Pfeffer told the newspaper.

- see LA Times' coverage
- read The Street's comments