AbbVie to tap Vraylar messaging lessons, but also create a new position to promote key psychiatric drug from Cerevel buy

AbbVie’s new $8.7 billion buyout of psychiatric biotech Cerevel sees it gain a key midstage pipeline med in emraclidine, and the pharma says it will lean on its marketing work for its atypical antipsychotic drug Vraylar to position this therapy while also looking to carve out a new message.  

“We have put a lot of effort behind [Vraylar’s marketing], mainly through DTC advertising so we can activate patients and increase our share of voice,” explained Jeffery Stewart, AbbVie’s chief commercial officer, in a call to analysts in December.

AbbVie has always followed the mantra “go big or go home” when it comes to advertising and marketing. In recent months the pharma has been boosting DTC spend on Vraylar, with it now consistently being one of the leading drugs in terms of spend for pharma ads each month.

In November alone, AbbVie spent $13.1 million on all ads for the drug, after spending $68 million, collectively, on ads for its two major blockbuster immunology drugs Skyrizi and Rinvoq in the same period. That made it the biggest pharma drug ad spender for the month, a title it will almost certainly take for the whole of 2023.

It is however unusual to see a drug like Vraylar, which has labels to treat certain patients with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depressive disorder (MDD), have such a high DTC spend.

The only other drug in the space to do that consistently is Lundbeck and Otsuka’s bipolar and schizophrenia med Rexulti. It’s a specialist space and typically, and this is notable in schizophrenia, the promotion will need to go toward HCPs, rather than consumers and patients via TV ads.

But as the stigma of mental health is being tackled, and these drugs are broadening their labels into areas like bipolar and MDD, DTCs are becoming a more recognized method of promotion and a path to diagnosis.

Vraylar works as an oral drug and is a combination of a partial agonist activity at central dopamine D2 and serotonin 5-HT1A receptors and antagonist activity at serotonin 5-HT2A receptors.

Cerevel’s emraclidine, which is in midstage testing and the jewel in AbbVie’s buyout crown, works differently. It’s a muscarinic M4 selective positive allosteric modulator, and it too will likely seek a schizophrenia license, as well as other labels.

But Stewart said that, while AbbVie will use its marketing experience from Vraylar, the “positioning for emraclidine will be very different.” It will be core for schizophrenia, he said, so it “won’t really be associated with the Vraylar dynamics.”

There will however be DTCs, “strong positioning and multiple indications,” Stewart said, as it looks to also up the “share of voice” for the new drug, should it gain FDA approval in the future.

It will likely have to make a show of the differentiation to ease any concerns from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). On the same analyst call CEO Richard Gonzalez was however clear that AbbVie did its due diligence, and he does not expect big problems from the FTC when it comes to Vraylar and emraclidine.

“Obviously we looked very carefully at the FTC risk before we proceeded forward. I can tell you, this acquisition is not anticompetitive,” Gonzalez said in the call. He noted that psychiatry is a very “crowded and fragmented” market with “literally dozens” of available medicines.